Two days into the rout of Saddam Hussein's Army, a man with a Texas accent called a restaurant in Jordan to order 200 pizzas for American soldiers in Iraq. The manager hung up. The caller phoned back, claiming to represent a radio station looking for reaction to the American victory. Didn't the proprietor support U.S. troops? No, in Jordan most people supported Saddam. Well, the Americans were in Iraq, said the voice from Texas, and they might just go to Jordan and put the people there back on their camels. Fadi Ghandour, one of the restaurant's owners, slammed down the phone. It was humiliating to confront such gloating. A sense of despair nagged at Ghandour. "What scares me," he said afterward, "is it's just starting."
In the postwar era, the Arabs have endured successive cycles of humiliation and rage. Demagogues raise hopes of restoring past Muslim glory. These hopes then perish: in 1948 and 1967 they were crushed by Israel; now U.S. led forces have done the job. The cherished myth of Arab unity has been shattered once again. In the wake of Iraq's defeat "there will not only be disappointment and sadness," says a Jordanian history professor. "It leads to anger and then to violence."
Modern communications and rising literacy magnify the emotions. After the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948, says one exiled Palestinian old enough to remember, "people weren't really aware." The scope of the failure settled in gradually. Even today, many of Saddam's supporters are struggling to believe his claim of "victory." The Iraqi withdrawal was "a wise decision, a good military tactic," says a young Palestinian in Jordan's Baqaa refugee camp. But the spectacle of Iraq's troops surrendering by the tens of thousands is finally inescapable.
Arabs who believed in Saddam are searching for scapegoats not only among the Iraqi dictator's enemies but among his friends. "The Arab masses and governments failed Saddam," says a PLO activist. "People are upset because there was no real war," says a veteran politician in Morocco. Unlike his predecessors, Saddam had a record of carrying out his threats. This time he didn't. Still, "the people hate to put his image out of their hearts," said the politician.
Bitterness spread last week even among Arabs whose governments were on the winning side. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a staunch supporter of Washington. But riots broke out in Cairo as Saddam's humiliation sank in. At least one student died amid stone-throwing and tear gas. Mubarak was denounced as a "coward" and an "American agent."
The Arab defeat in 1967, when Israel rolled over the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in six days, had much the same effect. Disillusionment set in throughout the region. Within three years the emotional aftermath of 1967 thrust Yasir Arafat into the leadership of the PLO, brought Muammar Kaddafi to power in Libya, opened the way for Hafez Assad to take over Syria and put Saddam Hussein in control of Iraq. Muslim fundamentalism, long disparaged by Arab intellectuals, gained ground among the masses.
This time the rationalization of defeat, the rhetoric of revolution, even the solace of religion may have less appeal. All have been tried before. None has delivered on its promises. Arabs who hunger for a place in the modern world are weary of old grievances. As one Jordanian entrepreneur put it, "If we recognize we've lost, we won't let guys like this lead us into this sort of thing again. We have to quit living with these damn 'moral victories'." This may create an opening for the United States. "Americans will be hated for a long, long time," says a Lebanese filmmaker, "unless they surprise the hell out of us." President Bush just might. "This is not a time of euphoria, certainly not a time to gloat," he said last week. Many in the Middle East are looking desperately for redemption of their pride. Saddam exploited the issues of Palestine and the distribution of oil wealth for his own ends. He failed. But the issues remain. If the United States addresses them strongly and soon, it may yet win the hearts and minds of the Arabs as impressively as it won the war in Kuwait.