BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the election was at least in part a referendum on the war in Iraq, it's hardly surprising that Iraqis themselves and Arabs throughout the Middle East would be paying attention to the outcome. But there's attention, and then there's close attention.
For the last few weeks, Middle East media expert Marc Lynch has been monitoring Arab satellite TV and newspapers from his home base at Williams College, and he says the attention being paid to American elections has indeed been close, even by our own standards. MARC LYNCH: In the run-up to the election, I was watching some of the Al-Jazeera coverage, and they were going into such detail about the election that it was to the level of offering profiles of which Democrats would take over which congressional committees - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. MARC LYNCH: - in the event of a Democratic victory. You know, a lot of the Arab media and Arab publics in general, with the United States and Iraq and with all the reform stuff, they see American politics now as part of Arab politics. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So assuming that most of the commentary and coverage focuses on the implications all this will have for American foreign policy in the Middle East and especially the war, what's their assessment? MARC LYNCH: Well, I think it's pretty complex. You know, one stream of commentary has been actually pretty much exactly the worst nightmare out of Republican [LAUGHS] election campaign materials. There's an Op-Ed in the Arab nationalist newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi today, and the headline is, Iraqi resistance delivers a fatal blow to Bush. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] In other words, the terrorists won. MARC LYNCH: You know, and looking on some of the Jihadi Internet forums, you definitely see some strand of celebration. We did it by inflicting so much pain on the Americans, they repudiated Bush. That's one thread which is certainly out there.
But the other thread is saying, well, what's really going to change? They're not looking at the Democrats as “Cut and Run.” They're looking at it much more questioningly. What do the Democrats really want? You know, what are they going to do?
In some ways, the discourse over there is more sophisticated [LAUGHS] than it is over here. Whatever the impact on the Iraq war, there are some who just want Arabs to focus on the positive lessons of the fact that there was an election and there was accountability.
In fact, there was an interesting op-ed by a pretty prominent Saudi writer, Jamal Khashoggi, in Al Ittihad, which is a UAE daily, where he basically called on Arabs to start paying more attention to American democracy for its own sake. And he was actually suggesting that Arabs who live in societies that are far from democratic should really be taking careful note. So this is an example of democracy working. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they've been focusing attention right down to speculating on who's going to be the heads of committees. I guess it hasn't gone down to the level of actually picking out particular, say, House races. MARC LYNCH: Well, there's one that's received a lot of attention, and that's Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, who won his Congressional race in Minnesota and who is going to be sworn in on a Koran instead of a Bible. This has been generating a huge amount of attention, and very positive attention.
You know, in some ways [LAUGHS], as a matter of public diplomacy, this is a great advertisement for America. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that in the last few days of the campaign, you wrote that you found it a little surprising that al Qaeda hadn't weighed in with at least a tape. So was it more quiet than it usually is around election time? MARC LYNCH: There were a lot of people on these Jihadi forums who were expecting an intervention. In fact, on one of them, I was actually following a betting pool - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow! MARC LYNCH: - or, at least, an online pool letting the participants on this Jihadi forum vote on what they thought was going to happen: Was bin Laden going to issue a videotape? Would Zawahiri issue a videotape? Would there be an attack?
And the general assumption running through this was that were al Qaeda to intervene, it would be on behalf of the Republicans. BROOKE GLADSTONE: To keep them in power. MARC LYNCH: To keep them in power. The idea was that this was serving al Qaeda's interests to keep the Americans in Iraq as long as possible so that they would be there for al Qaeda to kill.
The fact that there was no al Qaeda video is also significant, and you're starting to see people mulling that over, trying to figure out why there was no intervention. One possibility, of course, is that they wanted to and just couldn't, or maybe al Qaeda simply chose to sit it out because they didn't want to help the Republicans win.
One thing which is really interesting in following these forums is that they're confused, too. BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were a couple of other things that happened this week. Obviously at the beginning, last Sunday, we had Saddam's death sentence. What was the reaction in the Arab world? MARC LYNCH: It's really quite unfortunate, because on the one hand, there are really very few people who are opposed to the idea of Saddam being brought to justice, so people aren't upset by that for the most part. But what people are really upset by is the timing of the verdict, which has been almost universally seen as tied to the Republican election campaign.
I've seen so many commentaries along the lines of, this is the culmination of the farce. You know, how could it be more blatant, the manipulation of the process? And, you know, even Abdul Rahman Al Rashed, who's the managing director of al-Arabiya and one of the most pro-American pundits in the whole Arab media, basically said the other day in his column that it was obvious to him that the timing of the trial had been to help the Republicans, and that he was disgusted by it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what about the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld? MARC LYNCH: I think that in general, the Arab media is delighted to see Rumsfeld go. He's not popular. [LAUGHS] Rumsfeld is kind of seen as the public face of the Iraq war, you know, almost even more than Bush in some ways. You know, you're linked to a whole narrative of Abu Ghraib and the collapse into bloodshed and inattention to postwar planning.
And he's really been the villain of the piece for so long that seeing him go – I mean, it is, I think, important symbolically, but again, there just are real questions about the extent to which that's simply a symbolic thing or whether it's actually going to lead to changes in policy. And there, again, there's just no real consensus. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc, thank you very much. MARC LYNCH: Well, thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc Lynch is a political scientific professor at Williams College and blogger-in-chief at Abuaardvark.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is On the Media from NPR.