Leadership: May 30, 2004



The stunning contrast in reactions by American and Arab leaders to atrocities has led to a lot of questions and a lot of outrage. President George W. Bush apologized for the attacks on Iraqi prisoners by American military police. Yet no comparable apology has come from Arab or Muslim leaders for the attacks of 9/11 or the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg.

The difference is partially reflected in the differing situations. A number of Arab leaders are walking a fine line. One the one hand, they fear the consequences if they are seen to be siding with the terrorists. On the other hand, if they back the United States too much, they face risks from extremists, who will want them dead (as which happened to Anwar Sadat after he made peace with Israel).

The course of action seen as safest by many Arab leaders as a result of these events is to make an effort to play both ends against the middle. The Arab leaders will cooperate with the United States often behind the scenes and out of the public eye. In public, they will often act as if 9/11 did not happen. There have been some exceptions. Libyas Moammar Qaddafi has not only cooperated, but he has gone so far as to open his WMD programs to the West. This will be a treasure trove of information. Also, a Shiite cleric in Najaf, Mohamed Baker Al-Mahr, has issued a statement calling for the release of hostages taken by the insurgents in that country.

Those actions, though, are aberrations in the Arab world. The general perception is that an apology is a sign of weakness, and as such, many wont apologize until they see what happens to those who have cooperated. If Qaddafi and Al-Mahr survive, others will be encouraged to step forward and follow their example. If they do not, then it is unlikely others will follow, as the extremists will have proven that they are able to carry out their threats to retaliate against anyone seen as collaborating with the United States and/or Israel.

As a contrast, for the Americans, the actions of the MPs at Abu Ghraib are seen as the aberration. Americans (and those in the West) also see a difference in expressing regret that something occurred, and apologizing for something. It also is seen as a sign of strength to issue an apology when it seems warranted. That difference came into play in 2001, when a Chinese J-8II Finback collided with an EP-3E Aries intelligence-gathering aircraft. The Chinese demanded an apology, but later settled for an expression of regret that the Chinese pilot died in the incident.

Unlike the Chinese, the Arabs and Moslems dont seem to be able to tell the difference between regretting an incident occurred, and apologizing for misdeeds. As a result, they will press harder. This cultural gap will lead to more attacks in the short term, as the misinterpretation of American regret as weakness will encourage the insurgents. But that misinterpretation could help America in the long run as there will be fewer insurgents left when the attacks are done. Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




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