The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

America’s War and Osama’s Script

Ian S. Lustick

Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6215

The United States, with Great Britain, sent hundreds of thousands of its troops to the heart of the Arab lands. The detestable regime of Saddam Hussein has been removed. Regardless of the pretexts, cynical manipulations, and fantasies that led to the war, this fact closes doors that were well worth closing. But it has opened at least as many doors leading to dangerous, even horrific futures, as it has to futures that most Middle Easterners may welcome. Which futures are more likely will be determined in part by a new struggle—a struggle not simply economic or diplomatic or political, but discursive.

Washington describes the mission of American troops as “liberation.” The Muslim and Arab world largely sees “conquest.” Washington speaks of “administration,” “nation-building,” and “liberation.” But aside from Kuwait and Dearborn, the Muslim and Arab world mostly hears “exploitation” and “occupation.” Washington describes “victory.” The Muslim and Arab world feels humiliation and defeat. Washington will talk of “terrorism” and “war crimes,” but the Muslim and Arab will see “heroism” and “resistance.”

In these semantic skirmishes we are seeing the first battles in a long discursive war. Aside from the downfall of Saddam, the demonstration of the virtuosity of the American military, and the destruction wreaked on Iraq and Iraqis—the legacy of this war will also include the conviction in millions of Muslim minds that Osama Bin Laden and his like have been right. To them the war is an unnecessary but useful proof that United States is the nemesis of all Muslims. In any event, whether or not the United States is actually the mortal enemy of Islam, and whether or not the theory of history advanced by those who struck the World Trade Center to save the Muslim world is correct, there is little question but that the United States is now playing exactly the role scripted for it by the people Rami Khouri has described as living in “the Arab basement,” beneath the “Arab street” (2003).

This is not a role the United States should relish. It is the role of the villain, not the hero, and if the United States accepts that role, it will lose the discursive war and with it the readiness of Muslim and Arab masses to imagine a liveable world that includes a powerful American presence. Specifically, the question is this: Will the struggle to be fought over the coming years and decades lead the “Arab street” or the “Muslim street” to operate within the framework of assumptions that drive the activities of those small minorities living in the basement? Or will the United States be able, somehow, to return to itself in the Middle East—to the nation that was, more than any other non–Middle Eastern country, imagined by Middle Easterners as a beacon, not a brute—as a model, not a machine of extravagant force?

We can easily think of the story as it unfolds as an exciting but horrifying movie—a special “Wag-the-Dog” production. Brought to you by CNN, Fox, and al-Jazeera and directed by al-Qaeda, it stars George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Tony Blair, Tommy Franks, and Saddam Hussein. It was adapted for the screen by Bill Kristol from the book by Samuel Huntington. It is an epic, a story that only extremist Muslims and Christians yearning for Armageddon and the Rapture will want see to its ultimate conclusion.

Consider how well the basic plot line matches Osama Bin Laden’s preferred narrative—war against the infidel invaders, revolution against existing Muslim regimes, and the development of weapons of mass destruction for use against the Christians and Jews occupying Muslim lands.

The following is taken from an interview with Bin Laden in December 1998:

Our enemies are moving freely in our seas, lands, and space. They strike without seeking anyone’s permission. This time the United States and Britain were not able to rally support for this flagrant and exposed conspiracy [referring to the bombing of Iraq in the late 1990s]. The present regimes … are either colluding or have lost the ability to do anything against this blatant occupation. … Our duty—and we carried it out—is to rouse the nation for jihad against the United States, Israel, and their supporters for the sake of God. We continue to move in the direction of instigating people. … We are demanding our right to have the Americans evicted from the Islamic world and to prevent them from dominating us. We believe that the right to self-defence is to be enjoyed by all people. Israel is stockpiling hundreds of nuclear warheads and bombs and the Christian West is largely in possession of such weapons. … We regard this as one of our rights, of Muslim rights.

There are two parties to the conflict: World Christianity, which is allied with Jews and Zionism, led by the United States, Britain, and Israel. The second party is the Islamic world. In such a conflict, it is unacceptable to see the first party mount attacks, desecrate my land and holy shrines, and plunder the Muslims’ oil. When Muslims put up resistance against this party, they are branded as terrorists. This is stupidity. It is an insult to people’s intelligence. We believe that it is our religious duty to resist this occupation with all the power we have and to punish it using the same means it is pursuing against us.

Bin Laden admitted in this interview that a major problem was the difficulty of reaching American targets. The insertion of hundreds of thousands of American targets into the middle of the Arab-Islamic world, under the barely concealed banners of Christian fundamentalism and the Israel-firsters of the New American Century Project, would seem to go far toward solving that problem—the problem of making the ravings of a modern-day Ibn Taymiyya seem almost obviously true to hundreds of millions of Muslims, the problem of making Americans look like Mongols.

The United States and the forces of reason in the West, in the world, and in the Middle East do have resources, however. The United States, the British, the Israelis, and of course the French have records of brutality, exploitation, and domination in the Middle East. But that is not all these societies, even Israeli society, have to offer. In this place and at this time I wish only to remind us of the words of another American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and to thereby evoke an authentic image of the United States and the role it can take in the Middle East, one which contrasts as sharply as possible with that on display by the current administration.

On 20 February 1957 President Eisenhower made a televised address to the American people, warning Israel of the consequences of invading and occupying the Sinai and of refusing to withdraw despite United Nations calls to do so.

This raises a basic question of principle. Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?

If we agree that armed attack can properly achieve the purposes of the assailant, then I fear we will have turned back the clock of international order. We will, in effect, have countenanced the use of force as a means of settling international differences and through this gaining national advantages.

I do not, myself, see how this could be reconciled with the Charter of the United Nations. The basic pledge of all the members of the United Nations is that they will settle their international disputes by peaceful means and will not use force against the territorial integrity of another state.

If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization and our best hope of establishing a world order. That would be a disaster for us all.

I would, I feel, be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal.

Of course, we and all the members of the United Nations ought to support justice and conformity with international law. The first article of the Charter states the purpose of the United Nations to be “the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with ... justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes.” But it is to be brought about “by peaceful means.”

We cannot consider that the armed invasion and occupation of another country are “peaceful means” or proper means to achieve justice and conformity with international law.

No matter how desperately wrong U.S. policy may seem, it is not the only course America can take. This fact must help guide our thinking and our analysis of the futures available for the Middle East and the world. As the United States moves, or perhaps lurches, toward a future in which the tasks of disentanglement and disengagement will eventually loom largest, Eisenhower’s wisdom must be remembered. Without rules that apply to every country, there will be no rules for any country, and the law of the jungle means that the predator can also be the prey. Absent a genuine American global empire, this truth is unavoidable. Unavoidable as well, will be the imperative to replace Washington’s cynical attitude toward the United Nations with a realization of how much America may come to need that institution’s legitimizing imprimatur and its ability to bear political and administrative burdens well beyond the capacity of even a hyper-power.


An interview with Osama Bin-Laden 1998. Interview by Jamal Ismai’il, . Recorded at an unspecified location in Afghanistan in December 1998, as broadcast by Qatari Al-Jazeera satellite TV, on 20 September 2001; monitored by the BBC Monitoring Service, 22 September 22, 2001.

Khouri, R. G. 2003. Anti-Americanism in the Arab World: Its roots, repercussions, and remedies. A Lecture was given at the University of Utah:. Accessed 12 April 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

The Eisenhower, Dwight D. 1957. Eisenhower publicly threatens Israel with sanctions. Radio broadcast, 20 February. Accessed 12 April 2003 from speech is posted at on the World Wide Web.

(Submitted 10 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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