What can we learn from the baffling stance of the Kuwaitis?
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Kuwait has become a metaphor for the growing divide between the United States and the Islamic world — one that is fundamental and cannot be so easily resolved by shaking hands, holding conferences, and promising to “just to get along.”
A recent 60 Minutes report by Mike Wallace of grassroots popular expression there brought a flood of official disavowals from the kingdom. On film, dozens of Western-educated, yuppified Kuwaitis smugly expressed outright enmity for the United States — making past reports somewhat more understandable that infants born last year in the kingdom were named after bin Laden and that a vast majority opposes our efforts in Afghanistan. Those who were educated over here seemed to be the most virulently anti-American.
The facts of September 11 made no impression whatsoever — either of remorse or of fear that most of the killers were Arabs from the Gulf and so might invite American reprisals. Listening to the Kuwaiti anger you would think that 19 Americans had blown up 3,000 Muslims in Mecca and Medina, along with 20 acres of the downtown, while in the immediate aftermath the American government had lectured the grieving Gulf States about their improper policies concerning Israel — rather than vice versa.
Of course, the Kuwaiti sheikdom, which likes to be defended, ship its oil over safe waters, be paid in a calm and lawful market, and send its elites overseas — immediately issued a series of denials and corrections. The monarchy no doubt must now turn to the usual meretricious public-relations firms in Washington for damage control. Glib Western-educated bureaucrats are already seeking to “correct” on television a “false” impression of Kuwait.
Yet the more disinterested Gallup poll of Middle-Easterners apparently reveals that roughly three-quarters of Kuwaitis (72%) do not much like the United States. Nearly as many Middle Easterners in general (61%) subscribe to the lunatic view that Arab terrorists were not responsible for the murders of Sept. 11. In other words, a more systematic appraisal of Kuwaiti public opinion confirms the anecdotes we hear on television and read in the media. Indeed, after fielding questions the last six months on radio and in public fora from Middle Easterners in the United States, I was surprised only that nearly a third of those polled in some countries actually expressed any admiration at all for the United States.
What can we learn from the baffling stance of the Kuwaitis? First, the past conduct of the United States counts for nothing in the present crisis. For months Americans have been amazed that Muslims showed so little appreciation that we helped save Islam from the Russians, fed starving Somalians, and prevented Kosovars from being annihilated. We were damned by Russians, Armenians, many eastern Europeans, and Orthodox Balkan peoples for ousting Milosevic by force and attacking a Christian European country — but oddly, never praised by the Islamic world for saving Muslims and therein incurring such wrath from our natural allies and friends. In this regard, it is not our duty “to get the message out,” but rather the Kuwaitis’ to admit the truth of the past; it is not our problem to assuage their hurt, but their very real need to lessen our anger that is rising, not diminishing, each day since Sept. 11.
So the case of Kuwait is an example of ungratefulness of a completely different magnitude — one that puts the French of the late 1940s to shame. Quite simply, by autumn 1990 Kuwait had ceased to exist. Invaded and conquered by Iraq in a matter of hours, it was already annexed by Saddam Hussein as a “province” of Iraq. Exiled Kuwaitis of the royal family, who ran from Saddam’s tanks, still managed to fly over here to swarm Washington for nearly six months. They immediately began imploring Americans not to give up on them. We were to spend our blood to do what they themselves either could not or would not. Horrific stories of gratuitous Iraqi butchery were staples of congressional committees and the evening news — as we Americans were asked to become allies with an autocratic Islamic state to save it from another Arab dictatorship. In late 1990 purported notions of pan-Arabism, common Islamic brotherhood, and regional solidarity didn’t seem to matter much to the Kuwaitis — when the neighborhood viper had slithered in to swallow their country whole.
No Arab state or European nation took the initiative in freeing the Kuwaitis. American servicemen spearheaded their emancipation — and then graciously allowed a token armored column of Kuwaitis to enter their homeland first to “liberate” their enslaved population. If few had seen the Kuwaiti princes scamper out of town when the Iraqis came, the world now witnessed on television their staged triumphant return. Somewhere in between the two events was the intervention of the Americans.
What can we learn from this ungracious about-face? Again, the answer surely is not that we must mediate more, “work harder” on public relations, or learn more about Kuwait. What we know about it is already depressing enough. Since there is not a single democracy or free media in the Arab Middle East, there is almost no chance that religious figures, politicians, academics, intellectuals, and average people can debate honestly the growing contradictions between Islam and the modern world — or Islam’s need for Western expertise and the ensuing resentment that such dependency apparently incurs. Instead the success and power of the United States — and to a lesser extent of Israel — in Pavlovian outbursts become the cheap targets when venting Middle-Eastern frustration at internal economic failure, religious hypocrisy, government autocracy, and endemic cultural contradiction, whether in an impoverished Egypt or the affluent Gulf.
If saving an entire people from extinction earns less than a decade’s worth of appreciation, then nothing we do in the future will matter much either. In the same manner, we should assume that the billions of dollars that go to Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine to help “moderates” bring not thanks for our largess, but rather contempt for our naiveté. It would be far more intellectually honest — and cheaper — simply now to allow them all to be the enemies that they wish to be rather than the friends they do not.
Second, a common theme of the Kuwaiti displeasure toward us is apparently the murderous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We can put aside all the thorny issues involving the West Bank and focus on just one event. In 1990 Mr. Arafat, with apparent support from the Palestinian people, and seconded by the monarchy in Jordan, quite vocally backed the Iraqi destruction of Kuwait. As I recall, Arafat was captured on television kissing Mr. Hussein after the latter’s dismemberment of Kuwait. In other words, the very peoples that the Kuwaitis now express solidarity with just a few years ago were celebrating their own demise.
Nor should we forget that in turn, upon liberation of Kuwait, many Palestinians were forcibly evicted from the entire sheikdom. So let us pause for a moment and sort out the astounding facts and zany logic of Iraqis kicking out Kuwaitis kicking out Palestinians: (1) we intervened in the Gulf to save the Kuwaiti nation from serfdom; (2) whereas the Palestinians cheered on news that Kuwait was dissolved; (3) and the Kuwaitis now express dislike toward America over our own purported lack of sympathy for the Palestinian people! We give over 100 million dollars a year to Mr. Arafat. We ignore reports that Palestinians were cheering on news of 3,000 murdered Americans. And we welcome Palestinian students to our shores. In contrast, the Kuwaitis once ethnically cleansed their country of Palestinians — and the Kuwaitis now express hatred toward America over our treatment of Palestine!
But besides ingratitude and hypocrisy, there is also the larger and more metaphysical issue of Westernization that explains Middle-Eastern schizophrenia — the third rail upon which neither our own Arabists nor Middle Eastern “moderates” dare tread. Kuwait possesses no indigenous tradition of consensual government, religious tolerance and diversity, secular rationalism, free speech and open debate, or class and gender equality — in other words, the entire cargo necessary for a humane and technically sophisticated culture.
It is a tribal society that exists under the veneer of a modern nation simply because of two facts: oil and the Western expertise and learning it buys. Its oil wells were created by the West. They were blown up by its Arab neighbor. And then they were restored — along with the surrounding environmental mess — through Western protocol and machines. Everything that works in Kuwait and so separates it from a Cairo or Islamabad is due to oil-generated Westernism — from its skyline and its power-grid to its automobiles and foreign-educated elite. Its sophisticated weapons that once proved so useless when the Iraqis crossed the border were impotent not because of their American designs and fabrication, but simply because there were Kuwaitis, not Americans, using them.
At some point, such a stark paradox might prompt Kuwaiti introspection and contemplation about Westernization — rather than such infantile resentment. A mature people would implement a true democracy, create a secular and independent judiciary, and institute a free press as part of a national discussion on the advantages and perils of modernism in a traditional society. Instead, once again as in the case of the terrorists who incinerated our citizens on Sept. 11, murdered Danny Pearl, and are planning more mayhem for us all, public opinion in Kuwait confirms that the root of anti-Americanism is not poverty (they are rich), not exploitation (they do not give oil away), not past grievance (we saved them), not purported solidarity with the Palestinians (whom they ejected), but a basic sense of umbrage and accompanying envy that grows with greater exposure to the West.
The more the Kuwaitis and their neighbors learn of and copy us, the more they understand that what they desire for their own only others can create; and that their new Westernized appetites grow faster than their old rules can repress them. Because emotions such as jealousy and self-absorption at their most basic are puerile, and entirely explicable without help from Marx, Freud, Foucault, or Edward Said, there is a tendency among elites in Washington and New York — quite dangerous to my mind — to dismiss them, and instead construct all sorts of other hypothetical and more sophisticated grievances. That would be a grave mistake. The answer to Kuwait is not apology for who we are, withdrawal of our support for Israel, or more obsequious requests for their bases and mutual defense ties.
No, the solution for our fickle friends in the Gulf is a long overdue accounting with the terrorist autocracy of Iraq and the implementation of consensual government in its place. We saved Kuwait once from Iraqi fascism and apparently received ingratitude for our efforts. Perhaps next time we should encourage a new and free Iraq to ignite a chain reaction of democratic revolution in the Gulf — and let the sheiks deal with reformers who seek not to take their oil, but to oust them altogether.
These are grim times when our very best Americans are dying in Afghanistan to stop Islamic fundamentalists from vaporizing thousands more of our innocent civilians. It is not the hour to mince words, back-peddle, or pretend about a Middle East that presently does not exist. Courting Kuwait in the present crisis would be like hosting Franco in Washington, D.C. during December 1941. We really are in a war about which our President has said that you are either for us or against us. What we are learning from the Kuwait people is that they prefer the latter. So for once let us just listen to their wishes — and let the chips in the ensuing months fall as they may.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson