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."
Fatalism offers Moslem rulers a way to avoid blame. It was all in the cards, what could we do? As'ad Abu Khalil of California State University finds that in times of defeat, Arab leaders typically adopt an attitude that "people have no influence or effect whatever on their actions and deeds. It is only God who acts." Invoking "the inescapability of destiny" absolves Arab regimes and armies from responsibility. This pattern, he correctly notes, "has become typical to the point of predictability."
Conspiracy theories are so dominant that every confrontation with the West (including Israel) is assumed to imply a Western intent to destroy the rulers and conquer their countries. Egyptians, for example, widely believed the British and French governments planned in 1956 to eliminate Nasser and occupy Egypt. When these devastating consequences failed to happen, his mere survival became tantamount to a famous victory.
Defeating an enemy on the battlefield is not enough to win in the Middle East; the ruler and his regime must also be eliminated. The policy implications for Iraq are obvious.
Aug. 28, 2006 update: Hasan Nasrullah's star status in the Middle East after by any objective standard having lost his war with Israel fits exactly into this pattern. Lee Smith points out the continuities today in "The Real Losers: Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah admits that the war was a mistake."
Nov. 21, 2012 update: The Israel Defense Forces may have executed many of the Hamas leaders, smashed up its infrastructure, and left Gaza reeling, but – true to form – Hamas has called for a holiday of celebration the day after a cease fire went into effect. Not just that, but it has declared Nov. 22 a day to be marked every year henceforth: "We call on everyone to celebrate, visit the families of martyrs, the wounded, those who lost homes." So serious were the revelries that one person was killed and three wounded by gunfire into the air.
Fatah official Bassam Zakarneh asked on his Facebook page, "My brothers, if the death 163 of martyrs including the leader Ahmad Jabari, with thousands of wounded and all [government] institutions destroyed is considered a victory, then by God what is defeat?"
Nov. 19, 2012 update: Barry Rubin makes similar points to mine at "The Israel-Hamas War and the Suicide Strategy: How Arab Forces Expect to be Weak, Start Losing Wars and Still Hope to Win."