April 5, 2004

Telhami Discusses The Stakes in Iraq

Print More

“More and more Arabs see this not as a war on terrorism, but on Muslims; while more Americans see the problem of terrorism as Islam, not Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group,” said former Near Eastern Studies Prof. Shibley Telhami during his lecture on the Middle Eastern view of America and the war on Iraq.

The lecture, called “The Stakes: America and the Middle East,” drew in more than one hundred people to David L. Call Auditorium last Friday. Chosen as the 2004 Olin Lecturer, Telhami followed in the footsteps of such former speakers as Isabel Allende and Noam Chomsky.

Before the start of the war a year ago, Telhami conducted several public opinion surveys in the Middle East to find out why the region was so passionately opposed to the war on Iraq. “Most people didn’t trust the U.S.,” Telhami said.

Based on one survey conducted in Turkey, Telhami said, “they felt the U.S. was after a Muslim country.”

The study also found that Turks expected there to be less democracy, more terrorism and less of a chance for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict as a result of the war.

“Their decisions were based on profound experiences that affected their assessment,” Telhami said. “They see an Iraq without a dictator…What they see in Iraq is a bloody anarchy, the insecurity of people who won’t even leave their homes because they believe they may be robbed and no one is there to protect them,” he said.

Telhami examined a Middle Eastern belief that a war in Iraq would bring about less democracy — a very contrasting idea, as one of President Bush’s main reasons for the war was the establishment of an Iraqi democratic government.

“Those countries, such as Jordan, that had been liberalized had to listen to their people and not support the war. Authoritarian governments, that did not liberalize, found it easiest to support the war,” he said.

Telhami claimed that countries that were more democratic and followed popular opinion lost the United States’ support while authoritative regimes that repressed their citizens views came under favor with American foreign policy. Telhami gave the example of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who came to power during a military coup, “No American government, especially this one, is going to push him to open up,” Telhami said.

In reference to Iraq’s potential as a model of democracy in the Middle East, Telhami said, “[The Middle East] sees a model they don’t want to emulate,” said Telhami. “They see occupation, and occupation is not a good term for them.”

On terrorism, the Middle Easterners prediction came true. “Since the Iraqi War there has been more terrorism statistically,” said Telhami in reference to the recent subway bombings in Madrid, Spain.

One reason for the rise in terrorism, Telhami claimed, was that Al-Qaeda has found a new home among the destruction and suffering caused by the war on Iraq. “In the past year, we have seen an exponential increase in candidates to join these groups and that is not a good story.”

Telhami then examined the Israel- Palestinian conflict’s relation to the war on Iraq. Telhami claimed that the Bush administration thought a successful war in Iraq would place the U.S. in a better position to negotiate Arab-Israel peace.

“No matter who opposed the war, the U.S. will seem so strong, such a winner, that those who want to be on the opposite side will have to think twice and will most likely jump on the American bandwagon,” said Telhami.

In contrast, Telhami claimed that even though the United States is a threatening military power, Middle Eastern countries know that the U.S. needs their cooperation in order to establish peace and eventually withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, whose enormous costs of occupation are piling up. “The U.S. has had less leverage since the war,” said Telhami.

Telhami conducted a survey in Egypt that found that Egyptians identify the Arab-Israeli conflict as a domestic issue. “It is an issue of identity for the Middle East. It is an issue of identity for Arabs,” said Telhami.

He then described his theory of the Prism of Pain — that every society has an experience that affects how they see the world. For Americans, 9/11 is our current Prism of Pain. For the Arabs, it is the Arab-Israeli issue. According to Telhami, it is from this prism that the Arabs evaluate American intentions. Therefore American action towards the Arab-Israeli conflict will determine the Middle Easterners view of American action in Iraq.

Telhami then took time to answer some of the audiences questions. One participant asked about the United States’ ability to spread democracy in the Middle East. Telhami replied saying, “we have lost trust…I don’t think any superpower can spread democracy unilaterally…You certainly cannot succeed if you alienate both government and public… It has to be a cooperative relationship.”

Currently, Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before his time in Maryland, he was an advisor to former Congress member Lee Hamilton, a member of the U.S. delegation to the Trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee, and wrote a book of the same title as his lecture, “The Stakes: America and the Middle East”, named one of the top five books on the Middle East by Foreign Affairs in 2003.

Archived article by Casey Holmes
Sun Staff Writer