THE ISRAEL REPORTJanuary/February 2001
Nothing Succeeds like FailureBy Daniel Pipes
(February 28 - 2001) - Exactly 10 years ago today, Iraq's war for conquest of Kuwait ended in total failure. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was expected quickly to lose control of Iraq, but a decade later he remains very much in power.
How did he manage this? Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's chief spokesmen, hinted, even before war broke out in January 1991, why his master had no worries. Middle Eastern regimes, Aziz told US secretary of state James Baker, have never "entered into a war with Israel or the United States and lost politically." Though somewhat exaggerated (Arab leaders did pay a price for losing to Israel in 1948-49), Aziz was basically right: military loss usually does not hurt a Middle Eastern ruler. Instead, he denies disaster on the battlefield and flourishes politically.
Consider some examples:
Suez crisis, 1956: Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser suffered a humiliating military rout at the hands of the British, French and Israelis, but insisted on having won a victory. He was widely believed. As a result, this episode "strengthened him politically and morally," writes the University of Maryland's Shukri Abed, helping Nasser become the dominant figure of Arab politics.
Six Day War, 1967: Catastrophic defeat at Israel's hands prompted Nasser to offer his resignation, but Egyptians responded with massive street demonstrations calling on him to stay in power (he did). Syria's defense minister in 1967, Hafez Assad, went on to become president of his country.
Battle of Karama, 1968: Yasser Arafat's Fatah lost its first major armed confrontation with the Israelis, but claimed victory.
Yom Kippur War, 1973: Israeli forces may have beaten the Egyptians and Syrians, but the latters' governments again portrayed the war as a great triumph.
Siege of Beirut, 1982: Arafat transformed a humiliating retreat from Beirut into political victory, emphasizing that the Israelis needed 88 days to defeat him, far longer than it took them to defeat other Arab forces.
Today, those events are remembered as a glorious victory. For example, Hamas recounted a few years later that the Palestinians in 1982 "humiliated" Israel and "broke its resolve."
But what explains this surprising pattern? Three aspects of Moslem life help account for it.
* Honor has monumental importance; maintaining it counts more than actually achieving something. Hussein Sumaida, an Iraqi exile, explains Saddam's motives in taking on most of the world in 1991: "Winning didn't matter. What mattered was putting on a good show and gaining the hearts and minds of the smoldering Arab world."(The writer is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.)
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