Arab humiliation

December 16, 2003

HE FANCIED himself a modern day Saladin, who would restore Arab prominence to its 12th century glory and might. Saddam Hussein's barbarous reputation didn't keep many in the Arab world from privately hoping he would succeed in that mission, and his inglorious capture by American soldiers is reinforcing old resentments toward the United States and its presence in the Middle East.

The celebratory gunfire heard in Baghdad after Mr. Hussein's arrest was but a burst of Iraqi exultation. There followed a disquieting reaction in some Arab capitals. Consider the characterization of the Iraqi dictator's arrest by analysts interviewed by Al-Jazeera, the CNN of the Arab world. In a word: "humiliating."

The personalization of Mr. Hussein's capture among Arabs can't be ignored. It underscores the prevalence of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and the view of the United States as an occupying power. Some Arab analysts warned of increased resistance to what they describe as the American occupiers. Americans might have a hard time understanding the mixed reaction to Mr. Hussein's capture; after all, the Iraqi dictator is responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of his own people and the ruin of his country. But his regime was only the worst of the oppressive governments in place in the Middle East.

Arab governments had selfish reasons to rejoice in Mr. Hussein's arrest. The dictator's sheepish surrender crushed the myth of his might and fearlessness. On the Arab street, Mr. Hussein was viewed as the only Arab leader willing to stand up to the United States and confront its ally, Israel. Through the lens of U.S. video cameras, Mr. Hussein appeared unkempt and tired but, mostly, defeated. And his defeat without a fight, without a shot being fired, reinforced the powerlessness of the average Arab living under other Mideast autocrats who are allied with the United States: Neither his followers nor his money could save Saddam Hussein.

The Bush administration is understandably preoccupied with the state of Iraq and the insurgents undermining its mission there with suicide bombs. But if the United States could succeed in returning Iraq to its citizens, it would reverberate throughout the Middle East.

In his last speech on events in the region, President Bush made a point of highlighting the need for Arab governments to bring about democratic reforms. That message can't be lost in the drive to stabilize Iraq.

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