In Amman, anxiety about U.S.

Jordan: The war on Iraq and criticism of Syria have heightened fears of colonialism.

War In Iraq

April 16, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan - The restaurant called Whispers offers a slice of Americana, from cheeseburgers to chocolate shakes, and is where several Jordanians who studied or worked in the United States were talking yesterday about what seemed an abrupt change in American values.

"The Middle East used to have rules," Khaled Asfour, 37, a lawyer who studied in the United States, said over a heaping plate of onion rings. "Now, it's whatever America wants. No country is safe anymore."

Thanks to the war against Iraq and pointed criticism of Syria, the Bush administration has increased anxiety here that the region is the victim of what some Arabs call American colonialism.

Arab newspapers paint the Iraq war in terms of an American conquest and yesterday noted warnings to Syria as proof that Iraq is merely the first stop and the lawlessness there as evidence of the type of Middle East that President Bush is creating.

"The foreign invasion on Iraq represents a heavy blow on the Arab conscience and Arab dignity," wrote Khalaf al-Jarad, editor of Teshreen, in Damascus, Syria. "In this respect, Iraq is targeted to return to primitive life, backwardness, loss and disintegration."

"After the fall of Baghdad, who will dare challenge Washington?" the English-language Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, asked in a headline. It published a cartoon from Saudi Arabia's Arab News showing Bush holding up a world wrapped in chains, which form Israel's Star of David.

The defensiveness is a symptom of fear, political analysts say.

"Whoever represents the status quo is afraid," said Adnan Abu Odeh, former political adviser to Jordan's late King Hussein. "We're still in a state of probing, trying to figure out what has happened."

The accusations against Syria, Odeh said, intensify "the fear and worry."

Many Arabs were especially horrified by the ransacking of Iraq's National Museum and its national library. "I would think that America would be aware of our history," Odeh said. "But they stood by as it was destroyed. That, to me, represented not the liberation of Iraq but the fall of Iraq."

Before the war in Iraq, there seemed to be rules of behavior that everyone observed. Some nations harbored militant groups but maintained diplomatic relations with the United States.

Asfour studied in Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York and returned to Jordan after getting his law degree in 1992. In school, he said, he took to heart lessons in "freedom, justice and the idea that everyone gets a chance to defend themselves. It was not the rule of the mighty.

"I don't think that's the case anymore," he said. "Up until the last minute, I really didn't think that America would go to war."

One of Asfour's law firm associates, Iyad Zawaideh, 28, spent nine years in the United States, earning a law degree from Boston College. He was in Manhattan at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I love freedom," he said, acknowledging the limits on political activity in Jordan. He would like to see his country democratize but said, "Who is America to impose it on us?"

Zawaideh drew a distinction between the American people and American leaders. But he said he may have too easily excused what he views as American naivete.

"I never really felt that people there understood the Middle East," Zawaideh said. "I had always assumed that was OK. But now I wish people in America were more educated about what happens here. Maybe then they would have stopped the war."

Walid Kazziha, political science professor at American University in Cairo, Egypt, said he foresees Arab countries being shut out from talks between the Israelis and Palestinians and having to disarm.

"The weakest points in the Arab world today are the regimes themselves," Kazziha said. "The moment they begin to make these concessions they become discredited in the eyes of their own people."

America's show of power, he said, has put Arab governments and their people "under siege. I don't think anyone here has a good word for the U.S., even those who have benefited. Even the beneficiaries are under siege."

The test for Arab rulers, he said, "will be how far they can go in response to American demands without jeopardizing their base of power."

What dismays many Arabs all the more is that the Bush administration's conduct could benefit Israel.

Efraim Inbar, political science professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is embracing Bush's agenda. "Israel is not scared by the new rules," he said. "We are the good guys. We are democratic, and we fight terrorists. If those are the two prerequisites for Bush, then we are OK."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an important issue, and resolving it would increase the United States' standing here.

"The best way to reward the angry Arab street is to answer the Palestinian question," Odeh said. "It remains in the hearts and minds of every Arab. Is it urgent? Yes."

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