About that Arab street. For most TV-viewing Americans, the Arab street looks like a vicious anti-American mob in need of a bath, a shave and a job.
But here's another view of an Arab street, this one in Najaf, Iraq, where thousands of jubilant Iraqis gathered Wednesday to applaud members of the 101st Airborne Division. They weren't burning flags or chanting anti-American slogans. They were re-enacting "the liberation of Paris," according to Lt. Col. Chris Hughes.
Or, in the words of one Special Forces officer, "the Macy's Day Parade."
Although not all was peaceful -a crowd turned temporarily angry when a U.S. patrol approached a religious shrine, and firefights continued in other parts of the city -the day's events suggest that Iraqis, indeed, may welcome coalition forces as liberators.
Though too soon to judge, it does seem that the anti-American street shifts when real-live Americans materialize with respect and supplies, walking the walk of American decency. In Iraq -and perhaps in the rest of the Arab world -seeing is believing.
It is one thing to be told Americans are killing invaders bent on occupation and world domination, as Arab news sources constantly report. It is another to bear witness to real American soldiers who put themselves in harm's way to liberate an oppressed and terrified people.
We who have been spoiled by a free press have a hard time grasping the limited view permitted most Arabs. Sure, they have the Al-Jazeera network, increasingly infamous for airing gruesome images of "failed American diplomacy." Not to mention that ratings-cinching film of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl being murdered. And let's not forget the perennial crowd-pleasing video of an American soldier being dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu.
These savage images, which are used to recruit terrorists, also apparently serve as visual metabolic boosters lest the street throngs notice their own impoverished lives at the hands of medieval dictators. Different strokes for very different folks, indeed.
Thus, much of the Arab street knows only what it has been told or shown. Fox News recently interviewed an Iraqi who served in Saddam Hussein's army during the first Gulf War and now lives in the States. The Iraqi recounted calling his brother in Baghdad a few days ago to report that coalition forces were drawing near.
The Baghdad brother was incredulous and accused his ex-pat brother of living too long in America -of being brainwashed -and insisted that Iraq was winning the war. On that particular day, coalition forces were 15 miles from Baghdad, but the brother had no such information. The Arab street, in other words, was in no position to be grateful to America.
One of the assumptions undergirding the invasion of Iraq was that liberated Iraqis would turn on their oppressors and greet American soldiers with -what was it -smiles and flowers? That our troops have been greeted with resistance, though objectively not very much, seems to have validated the war critics. But resistance, we're learning, is an Iraqi survival technique and the paucity of flowers perhaps a function of caution.
For an Iraqi to express appreciation of Americans, after all, is to commit suicide. One Iraqi woman recently was hanged for waving at coalition troops. Moreover, Iraqis vividly remember what happened in 1991 when U.S. forces left them to fend for themselves against a reinstalled Saddam. Those who turned on Saddam soon were turned into the earth.
A journalist from Arab News reported his experience with a young Iraqi man who chanted for television cameras, "With our blood, with our souls, we will die for you, Saddam." Off-camera, he explained to the reporter:
"There are people from Baath here reporting ... recording our faces. If the Americans were to withdraw and everything were to return to the way it was before, we want to make sure that we survive the massacre that would follow. ... In public we always pledge our allegiance to Saddam, but in our hearts we feel something else."
The Arab street, it appears, is not one way. Which isn't to say we don't have a nightmare PR campaign before us among much of the Arab world. Just because people are misguided or misinformed doesn't make them any less passionate in their ignorance or dangerous to their perceived enemies.
But early evidence in Iraq suggests that, despite years under a totalitarian regime defined by disinformation brutally delivered, the Arab street is capable of shifting directions. As long as America delivers the goods and remains true to a policy of humanitarian decency, we may yet earn those smiles and flowers.