The gap between the West and the Middle East

Posted: Mar 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Maybe it's so obvious that it's a given. But since "givens" are just taken for granted, I'll say it anyway. As we see proof in the war on Iraq that Western warfare has been retooled to minimize civilian casualties, we should also see that peace in this world is increasingly under attack by foes, mainly Islamists, whose strategy is the exact opposite: to maximize civilian casualties.

This presents a stark contrast and perhaps the simplest lesson to sink of the first week of war in Iraq. It's not just the ins and outs of "shock and awe"; the pros and cons of "embedded" reporters; the debate over troop strength; or Saddam Hussein's whereabouts that we should now be pondering. What we might also focus on, even in the face of whipping sand, thudding bombs and flapping lips, is this chasm that has opened up in recent years. It marks an important divide between civilization and barbarism in the 21st century.

To realize this is not to pat ourselves on the back -- although curtailing death and destruction while waging war, both the aspiration and its execution, should be seen as a signal moment in the continuing evolution of homo sapiens. Taking stock of this aspect of the war effort, the Weekly Standard's David Brooks asked an excellent question last week: "Has there ever been a conflict in the history of man in which the one army strove so mightily to not kill the soldiers of the other army?" Another question, of course, is whether a war has ever been waged on such a grand scale with the same strategic and tactical concern for civilian lives on the other side. "The battlefield's a very hazardous location," Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said this week in Qatar, sounding a little more like a traffic cop than a wartime military briefer. "We must continue to ask all citizens in Iraq to remain in their towns and homes, because it's very difficult to guarantee their safety on this battlefield."

Granted, such regard for human life has not only moral but also political roots, both of which, it is hoped, will sprout in a bouquet of goodwill from an Arab world thrilled by a liberated Iraq, regional tranquility and democratic reform. Or so the theory goes. So far, however, such goodwill is still stuck in the mirage phase. And so far, the Iraqi regime's stomach-turning war crimes to date -- the execution of American POWs; the transformation of a hospital into an armed guerilla headquarters (complete with 3,000 chemical warfare suits); the firing of U.N.-prohibited missiles; even the reported shootings of its own people -- are coming up roses in the Arab world.

According to United Press International, Persian Gulf television stations have organized fundraisers for their Iraqi "brother heroes," while the Jordan Times writes that people "are fed up with everything American, including democracy." The Arab League has officially decried the invasion. And, a report from the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi (via the Jerusalem Post) tells us the favorite name for Palestinian baby boys these days is Saddam.

This last bit is only to be expected, given the Palestinian Authority's mass exaltations induced by Iraqi forces capturing American soldiers. "Everyone here was happy to see pictures of American soldiers in Iraqi custody," a policeman at Yasser Arafat's headquarters told the Jerusalem Post. "I felt like kissing people all around me," said another. "'They have just shot down two Apache helicopters,' an excited merchant shouted hysterically as he ran out of his shop ... 'Oh beloved Saddam, bomb, bomb Tel Aviv,' (a group of about 50 school girls) chanted as passersby and shopkeepers greeted them with the traditional Islamic battle cry of Allahu akbar (God is great). As they marched through the streets, the girls, some younger than 10, urged Saddam to eliminate Israel.

'Oh Saddam, we love you, why don't you annihilate all the Jews?'"

This scene is not without its terrible irony. For as the United States and Britain throw their best men and armor at the terrorist-harboring, terrorist-supporting Iraqi dictatorship, they also prepare for what comes after: a reformed Iraq, minus Saddam Hussein, and a Saddam-supporting Palestinian state. Or so British Prime Minister Tony Blair all-but-stated before meeting with President Bush this week at Camp David.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Mr. Blair told Parliament that he and President Bush were determined to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "calling it the one issue that most divides the pan-Muslim world from the West."

Not quite.