The Magazine

The End of Appeasement

Bush's opportunity to redeem America's past failures in the Middle East.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By MAX BOOT
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FOLLOWING HANS BLIX'S devastating report and President Bush's compelling State of the Union address, Saddam Hussein looks more and more like a dead man walking. In all likelihood, Baghdad will be liberated by April. This may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history--events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall--after which everything is different. If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better. For the United States, this represents perhaps the last, best chance to do what it has singularly failed to do since World War II--to provide the Middle East with effective imperial oversight. It is not entirely America's fault, but our mismanagement and misconceptions have allowed a backward, once insignificant region to become arguably the main threat to the security of the United States and the entire West.

In centuries past, the wild and unruly passions of the Islamic world were kept within tight confines by firm, often ruthless imperial authority, mainly Ottoman, but, starting in the late 19th century, increasingly British and French. These distant masters did not always rule wisely or well, but they generally prevented the region from menacing the security of the outside world. When the pirates of the Barbary Coast (as Europeans called North Africa) could not be dealt with by the payment of ransom, the new American republic, and then the Europeans, took matters into their own hands. Ultimately, Algiers, Tripoli, Morocco, and Tunis were colonized, and thus ended their piratical threat. When a group of Egyptian army officers led by an early-day Nasser named Arabi Pasha tried to seize power in 1882, the British occupied the country, and wound up administering it from behind the scenes for decades to come. When a fanatical Islamic sect led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi (or messiah) took over the Sudan, and threatened to spread its extremist violence throughout the Islamic world, Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener snuffed out the movement in a hail of gunfire at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. When a pro-Nazi regime took power in Baghdad in 1941, the British intervened to topple the offending dictator, Rashid Ali.

Strong medicine, that. And no longer considered acceptable in today's post-colonial world. As America slowly took over Britain's oversight role after 1945, Washington tried self-consciously to carve out a different style of leadership, one that was meant to distinguish the virtuous Americans from the grasping, greedy imperialists who had come before. America wanted to show that it sympathized with the Arabs, Persians, and Muslims, had no designs on their lands or oil wealth, and would not even choose sides in their struggle to eradicate the nascent state of Israel. Unfortunately America showed something else--that we were weak, and could be attacked, economically and physically and rhetorically, with impunity. That we were a paper tiger--or, to use Osama bin Laden's metaphor, a "weak horse." "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse," the leader of al Qaeda has said, "by nature they will like the strong horse." It is no wonder that America today has so few real friends in the region. Why would anyone ride alongside a weak horse?

This may seem an odd statement to make, since America is often accused of being a bully, in the Mideast as elsewhere. Yet the record shows precious little bullying--indeed not enough. Note that the last time the United States played a pivotal role in a Mideast change of government (if one overlooks Bill Clinton's campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's 1999 election) was in 1953, when the CIA, along with Britain's MI6, helped to depose Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Considering how many violently anti-American regimes have existed in the Middle East since World War II, America's failure to overthrow more of them is a testament to our passivity and forbearance.