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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2003 / 24 Adar I, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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'We shall be seen as liberators' .... 10 minutes with noted Brit commentator David Pryce-Jones | Many who are opposed to the coming war in Iraq worry about the dire, unintended and unhappy consequences of massive American intervention in the heart of the Middle East. But not David Pryce-Jones, the Oxford-educated British author/commentator and Middle East expert who is a senior editor at National Review.

He is not only in favor of our removing Saddam by military means, he believes the subsequent establishment of democracy in Iraq will set off a chain of mostly favorable reactions that ultimately will bring democracy and modernity to the closed countries of the Arab world.

His most recent of 14 fiction and nonfiction books, "The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs," examines the tribal, religious and cultural forces that keep Arabs trapped in a cycle of violence and oppression and hampers their dealings with the West. I talked to Pryce-Jones on Wednesday by telephone from his home in London:

Q: You watched millions of anti-war protestors on the streets of Europe last weekend. Did their numbers or their arguments prove anything to you?

A: I don’t think there were millions. I think that’s an exaggeration. The numbers of these protests are always difficult to assess. Probably the British one, anyhow, has been greatly exaggerated. The largest demonstrations were probably really in Spain.

I think mostly what was activating them was ignorance, unfamiliarity of the Middle East – fear that somehow terrorism is going to spread because of all this. And lastly, and probably least important, a kind of feeling that we mustn’t let the Americans take charge of things.

Q: Do you buy any of the anti-war arguments at all?

A: No, I don’t. It seems to me there is a flux in the international situation at the moment — everything is open. The reason for that is that we have had democracy reaching far into central Asia and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We’ve had a lot of countries that have joined the democratic world. We had that in South America, as well, and even, God help us, parts of Africa.

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But the Arabs and the Muslims are the conspicuous exception. They are dropping out of history. And this is very tragic for them, and very dangerous for them, and for us, because they can wish their own travails and problems on to us. We, I’m afraid, have to make sure that they join the modern world.

I believe what is actually happening is that Iraq, and if we go war against Iraq, we shall succeed in convincing the Arabs to join the modern world and it will not be seen an uprising against us.

We shall be seen as liberators. The ordinary people in the street, the Arab street, they know perfectly well they are oppressed and that they’re dropping out of history. Something’s got to be done to save them. If they can’t save themselves, we have to save them for themselves.

Q: You said the anti-war protestors’ position that Saddam should not be dislodged showed a lack of respect for Arabs. How so?

A: The argument runs like this: Arabs have their culture and their own civilization, and most be allowed to live that way. We can all agree about that. But the next step is that this culture also means that they live under dictatorship, one-man rule and tyranny.

Then the argument branches. Those who defend the Arabs’ way of life say there is nothing you can do about that — that’s their culture. They’re used to tyranny. That’s what they are accustomed to. That’s how they live.

The other side says, wait a minute. It’s not human to live like that. That’s oppression. And we must do something to save these people from oppression.

Those who defend the Arabs say it is not our business to save them from oppression. And the counter argument to that is, “Well, yes it is, actually, as human beings. We respect them as people, like ourselves. We don’t want to live under tyranny. Why should they.”

Q: Many people share that belief and know that Saddam is a thug and that every human on Earth has a right to as much freedom as they can get. But they still think going to war is not a good idea because it will have all kinds of dire consequences.

A: I think the consequences will be liberating. It’s my view that the Arabs have a great deal to contribute to modern life. They’re people of great liveliness and imagination and vitality and they’ve got a wonderful language. We need ‘em!

And I don’t like the way their own rulers put them into prison and suppress them and stifle all their creativity and imagination. We’re deprived of this. There’s not enough creativity in the world to go around that we can just ignore what the Muslims can give us. We need more of it.

Q: But there will be consequences of toppling Saddam. What will be the benefits of doing so, versus the cost?

A: The benefits will be enormous, in my judgment. We shall get rid of one of the world’s foulest dictatorships. We shall have a democratic Iraq. We shall de-tribalize and demilitarize Iraq and create a decent civil society.

The Iraqis are a sophisticated people and they can do it for themselves. We don’t have to do anything more than just get rid of Saddam. Once we’ve done that, it’s up to the Iraqi people to make their own future — and I’m sure they can. They’re very sophisticated, well-educated people.

Q: Is there any other Arab country as sophisticated?

A: No. They have a lot of oil wealth and they have got a lot of education.Everything is going for the Iraqis — except they’ve got this dictator, whom we have to get rid of. Once we’ve democratized in Iraq, a lot of chips are going to fall in the rest of the Middle East.

It will have enormous consequences for the neighbors. How will Syria react? Why should the Syrians go on living under dictatorship if the Iraqis are free? What about the Palestinians? It may be the end of Yasser Arafat? What about the Egyptians?

It looks to me like the real benefit will be that the Arab world will join the free democratic countries and contribute their share to the world culture, as they can and as they ought to do.

The costs may be that people are going to be killed. But I believe that the support for Saddam is absolutely minimal. If the campaign begins, and when it begins, you will see that it will implode the way that the Soviet communism regime imploded.

Nobody is going to fight for it, because they will perceive the Americans coming as liberators. … I may be too optimistic, but I believe the costs will be, thank God, very, very small.

Q: A lot of people worry about all kinds of things — the Arab world will go into turmoil if we attack Iraq. Iraq will spin off into civil war. We will create many more little bin Ladens. I guess it’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist, but what do you say to those who fear all those dire consequences?

A: Look, Napoleon said, “When you go to war, you kick open the door and then you see what happens next.” And of course it is perfectly true that when you go to war all sorts of unexpected things can happen and things can go wrong.

But I believe that after the years of Saddam, the Iraqi people will be immensely pleased to be free of him. The Arabs in neighboring countries will see that and draw the sensible conclusions from it. They are not a bunch of undifferentiated, howling fanatics. They are perfectly capable, like you and me, of seeing the logic of the situation.

There may the settling of scores, but what I’m hoping is that the Iraqi opposition under Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress will very quickly establish order and that the Americans will play no part and have no part to play in the future political arena in Iraqi. They have tribal problems and tribal questions, which is where there may be trouble with bloodletting and why it is very important that Chalabi and the Americans work together to stop the trouble that I’m suggesting could happen during the interim period.

But I don’t think it will, because I don’t think Chalabi is out to settle scores. He’s out to build a new country and a civil society.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald