Tom Friedman’s guarded optimism about Iraq — he’s apparently decided that the people of Iraq no longer need to “suck on this” — is a strong sign that the ongoing effort by Bush administration flacks to present Iraq’s elections as a vindication for the war is succeeding among a key target demographic: American pundits who advocated the war.
Unfortunately, the Arab world, the main intended audience of the Iraq intervention, appears not to be responding as favorably. A New York Times analysis of Arab media’s reaction to Sunday’s elections concludes that they were “not seen as a step toward democracy,” with “few analysts and commentators in the Middle East declaring the elections a success and Iraq on the road to stability”:
“Iraq is a failure and a big mess,” said Hussein al-Shobokshy, a columnist for the Saudi Arabian owned pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat. “Iraq is a scary model right now,” he added. “It is so divided, vulgarly so.” […]
But after seven years of occupation, with so many killed, maimed and displaced, and with so many scandals, like Abu Ghraib, this is a very cynical audience. If the United States had hoped that the sight of millions of average Iraqis streaming out to vote might have begun to edge regional public opinion about American involvement in Iraq to at least a more neutral place, it is likely to be disappointed.
“It could be seen in the West as very symbolic, as nice, as something that proves it was worth getting rid of Saddam, but definitely not in the Arab world,” said Randa Habib, a political analyst and newspaper columnist in Amman, Jordan. “Jordanians still see Iraq as being manipulated by outside forces. Their minds have been manipulated by Americans and Iranians, and the outcome of the election will not be the best for Iraqis.” […]
“In contrast to the Western and especially U.S. portrayal of these elections as ‘do or die,’ ” [Mirella] Dagher [a regional analyst at Mideastwire.com.] said, “the Arab media seems to be under no illusion that Iraq is heading toward either progress and democracy or complete disaster with these polls. Instead ‘more of the same’ is generally being seen as a continuation of the country’s problems.”
Friedman also suggests that Iraq’s elections “will subtly fuel the discontent in Iran.” While I actually hope that this could be true, I should also note that it’s not a suggestion that I’ve ever heard confirmed by an actual Iranian, or really by any Middle East analyst whose reputation wasn’t somehow bound up with the Iraq war.
It’s stating the obvious to note that Middle East publics experienced the Iraq war in a completely different way than Americans did, and are therefore drawing entirely different lessons from it. The general narrative that’s taken hold in the U.S. is that, even though Bush and Cheney misled us into the war and then screwed it up really badly for a number of years, the surge pulled Iraq back from the brink and gave Iraq a fighting chance at democracy. (This is what enables people like Rep. Dana Rohrbacher to complain that “I have never heard one word of gratitude from the Iraqi people about the 4,300 Americans who lost their lives.”)
As far as I can tell, when people in the Middle East look at Iraq they see a U.S. invasion that resulted in over 100,000 dead Iraqis, four times as many maimed and wounded, over 4 million displaced within and without the country, an occupation that produced a government still unable to resolve its most serious political tensions, and a country still plagued by terrorism — “the number one country in the world most at risk for terrorist attacks,” in fact. We shouldn’t act surprised that few in the region see this as something to be grateful for, much less a model to be reproduced.