DAMASCUS // It is an incident that historians will probably come to see as symbolic of the George W Bush years, and in particular the way in which his Middle East policies were viewed in the region. In Iraq, there is no greater insult than to hit someone with your shoe and, as the nation watched on their televisions, that is exactly what one Iraqi journalist tried to do to the 43rd US president. Among his own people, Mr Bush became the least popular leader since political polling began - his approval ratings lower than Richard Nixon's. Among Iraqis - even those who are pro-American, even those who wanted Saddam Hussein gone and who still want US troops to stay - he is almost universally reviled.
The Americans and the British, those who were involved in the invasion, like to think they will be remembered favourably for finally ousting the brutal dictator they had for so long supported. Yes, there was the controversy over the rationale for the war, the justifications and lies that were told in order to make it happen, and the matter of a few international covenants that were broken along the way. But surely history will judge that the end justified the means, they reason.
Such logic grossly misreads the situation in Iraq, and the monumental suffering of the Iraqi people. It was not the original act of war that is so controversial there, or the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and these are not the reasons Mr Bush is so despised. Rather it is the casual irresponsibility with which he went to war and the cavalier manner in which he was seen to deal with its aftermath that created such deep-seated antipathy.
For a man who claimed to be sufficiently interested in the welfare of Iraqis that he was prepared to spend trillions of dollars as well as tens of thousands of lives liberating them, he showed a remarkable disregard for their actual well-being. In the US administration's complete failure to draw up a realistic post-invasion plan, it showed total disdain for the future of even a single Iraqi soul. As commander-in-chief of the army that occupied Iraq, Mr Bush assumed liability for the country and its people. It was a responsibility Iraqis might have expected him to shoulder gravely, cautiously and with utmost care. Instead they came to know him as blase in the extreme, careless with lives. Even worse than being deliberately malicious, that nonchalance is what Iraqis found so insulting.
He did not - and still does not - know how many Iraqi civilians died in his war, how many were wounded, how many mothers lost sons and daughters. He never bothered to count such things. As Baghdad tore itself to pieces in a vicious sectarian war, Iraqis with their newly acquired satellite televisions - they were banned under Saddam Hussein - would watch Mr Bush saying the sacrifices were worth it, that the war was not that bad, that it would be won in the end. They sounded like hollow words to the people who were actually living in those hellish times.
The Abu Ghraib abuse scandal is perhaps the single most graphic example of this. American soldiers tortured and humiliated their prisoners, breaking all moral and legal codes regarding the treatment of detainees. A serious man would have been outraged and at the very least would have demanded the immediate resignation of his defence secretary. Mr Bush was seen as sallying on through it all with a half smile on his face as though it were some sort of a joke.
Iraqis - if such a generalisation can be made - are hospitable, dignified people. If they have guests, even if they disagree with them, they will treat them with immaculate respect and good manners. And they will make a lot of exceptions for all kinds of bad behaviour as long as they too are treated with respect. An Iraqi from Basra once told me that was why his people looked back on the days of British occupation in the early 20th century with fondness. "Yes, we were occupied and the British then were thieves just like the Americans are now," he said. "But they were polite thieves and the Americans are not, that is the difference."
The Iraqi government has condemned the shoe-throwing incident, and still holds the reporter in custody. He faces a jail term if found guilty, as he surely will be, of disrespecting a visiting dignitary. Yet most other Iraqis seem to think the sight of the US president ducking a size 10 shoe as it flew at his head is either solemnly appropriate or downright hilarious. It is impossible to imagine such sentiments if Barack Obama, the president-elect, had been the object of the shoe toss or Bill Clinton. Or even George H W Bush, who is seen by Iraq's Shiite majority as betraying them in 1991. So it is not anti-Americanism that underlies this. It is the man himself, it is the fact Iraqis felt George W Bush added insult to their significant injury.
The most pro-western, pro-American Iraqi man I know talked to me about it yesterday and he could not stop laughing. "You can't deny that we owe Bush for freeing our country but we also owed him that," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org