The gulf crisis

Yacov Ben Efrat

On February 23, Iraqi official Tariq Aziz and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan signed an agreement that prevented an immediate American air attack on Baghdad. Observers one and all note that this agreement does not put an end to the confrontation between the Clinton administration and Saddam Hussein's regime. It does, however, show a clear decline in the ability of the United States to impose its will. The problem that led to the current crisis was never the weapons of mass destruction supposedly concealed by Iraq. Twenty-five thousand liters of anthrax, hidden, according to American propaganda, in one of Saddam's eight palaces, are no threat compared with the nuclear arsenal owned by the United States or, if we are referring to the region, by Israel. Given the potential horrors of unconventional war, Clinton's willingness to risk sparking one proved him no less "reckless" than opponent Saddam Hussein, to whom he applied this description. Though the U.S. was trying to pose as a mother hen protecting Saddam's frightened regional neighbors, no Arab state supported the use of

force to solve the crisis.
America was out for the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Yet even back in 1991, the international community gave the Bush administration a mandate to get Iraq out of Kuwait and no more. Extending the goal of that war was an American whim. When they failed to unseat Saddam militarily, they decided to accomplish this by implementing a series of UN resolutions, providing for a continuous humiliating inspection by UNSCOM, along with a severe international regime of economic sanctions. No country has gone through such a long and cruel process of inspection and boycott. The fact that Saddam Hussein was still ruling years later, in spite of the disastrous situation in Iraq, was an unbearable challenge to America's position as the only world superpower. The agreement that was reached between Kofi Annan and the Iraqi regime represents American failure to force U.S. policy toward Iraq upon the international community. Saddam managed to shift the case from American hands to those of the UN and to pave the way for the ending of sanctions and rehabilitation. Kofi Annan’s mission was imposed on the White House. Realizing that three permanent members of the Security Council were against the use of force, and having failed to establish a regional coalition, the U.S. had to establish legitimacy for a military attack, and that is why it agreed to let the mission go.

In many respects, looking back at 1991, the tables have turned. Seven years ago, after emerging victorious from the Iran-Iraq war – and as the third regional power – Saddam was claiming dividends. In the war he had served as a puppet of the West and the Gulf states, which feared the fundamentalism of the Khomeini regime, and he considered himself entitled to compensatory consideration. He demanded that Kuwait cancel his debts and allow for a rise in the price of oil. (He was not alone in demanding to raise oil prices; among the states in the region, only Kuwait obstructed the hike, at the behest of the U.S.) When refused by Kuwait, Saddam made a military move that the international community could not accept. It also raised fears among other countries in the region, and thus he isolated himself to a degree that facilitated an American attack backed by 34 countries. This time, on the other hand, it seems that the Iraqis were proceeding prudently, and it was Clinton who isolated America by pushing for the use of unjustified force.

The diplomatic agreement represents a deep setback for American policy in the Middle East, for more than one reason. When the Gulf War was over and the Americans returned home, hailed with yellow ribbons by an enthusiastic public, they declared themselves as the only superpower on earth, responsible for the welfare of humanity. After the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the world expected a hundred years of peace and prosperity under the New World Order. It didn't take long for the Bosnian tragedy to erupt, followed by the massacres in Somalia and Rwanda. More recently came the collapse of the financial markets in eastern Asia. In the recent crisis Clinton had to pay the price for all this. The rising unemployment in Europe also proved to be a factor – as seen especially in the desperate will of Russia and France to improve their economies by rebuilding Iraq after the sanctions are lifted. The new world order, it seems, was good for the Americans but bad for the rest of the world.

In the Middle East, the new world order did not open new opportunities. The Arab states – especially Syria and Egypt, which had joined the American axis in 1991 – felt betrayed by its policy. The promise of a new, even-handed U.S. policy foundered on the rocks of the Madrid process and the Oslo Accords. Israel continued to do as it pleased, violating international decisions and getting away with it. Furthermore, Syria and Egypt saw themselves threatened by the (American-encouraged) military alliance between Israel and Turkey. This was seen as an anti-Arab axis. Here was the crack through which the Iraqi leadership could gradually escape the regional isolation imposed on it. The clearest example is the recent visit of the Iraqi foreign minister to Damascus after fifteen years without any relations between the two countries.

Time has played into the hands of Saddam Hussein. All that America could show was the miserable plight of innocent Iraqi civilians. For seven years they could not find a solid and popular opposition to replace Saddam. It is now evident that the U.S. has no alternative to the present regime, and that the only result of Saddam's collapse would be a state of chaos, followed by the partition of Iraq into three ethnic entities: the Kurds in the north, the Shi'tes in the south, and the Sunni population in the center. This prospect terrifies the whole Middle East: it would almost certainly destabilize the region. Reading the map carefully, Saddam Hussein knew how to maneuver. He initiated a new crisis and put the changing facts in front of the whole world. He was saying, as it were, "The old balance of forces is over. We are not going to play the American game any more, since it has lost its justification, and the old war allies no longer support it. Commentators predicted that this was another of Saddam’s hollow tricks, slated to end in retreat, but they were wrong. Saddam won this round because he was ready to withstand a furious American attack. But he also knew that Clinton could not achieve his goals. It was this stand of Saddam’s that made the Americans back off, even if temporarily, from a military showdown.

Along with the Iraqi people, the Palestinians had paid a high price for the earlier American victory. Arafat explained his miserable treaty with Israel as plain realpolitik. His logic went like this: "Nobody can challenge the American will after what it did to Saddam Hussein." It is no surprise, therefore, that the biggest show of popular support for Saddam and the Iraqi people came from within the Arab entities that had signed peace treaties with Israel, namely the Palestinian territories, the Kingdom of Jordan, and Egypt. By hoisting Saddam’s picture, they sent a message of defiance against their leaders' subservience to the U.S. No wonder the demonstrations were repressed. Both Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan took extreme measures to stop the protests. The Palestinian people understood that if the United States forced Saddam to his knees, they would be the first to pay the price, by being compelled to accept a final settlement with Israel in accordance with Netanyahu’s view. That would mean an extended autonomy over a territory not bigger than a third of the West Bank. Following the good old "theory of defeat," the Palestinian leadership, for its part, was preparing itself to accept the deal. While thousands demonstrated in the streets of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin, secret intensive meetings were held between Netanyahu’s aides and Arafat’s, as well as between Israel’s Arik Sharon and Palestinian leaders Abu Mazen and Abu Ala. Maps were spread, lines drawn. All this took place amid Israel's joyful anticipation of an American attack on Baghdad.

Today the story is somewhat different. The United States lost ground, and support for its policy in the region will no longer be automatic. Arafat's credibility is in shambles, too, after he supported the U.S. against the will of his people. As a result, the plan to dictate a final settlement along Israeli lines may well face problems. If the U.S. wants to dictate its way in the region, it will have to reverse the balance of forces by destroying Iraq and toppling Saddam. Currently, this looks unlikely.