by Shibley Telhami
San Jose Mercury (Perspective
Sunday, September 22, 2002
The international crisis over Iraq
has changed drastically in just two weeks. After months
of talk of unilateral American action against the
government of Saddam Hussein, including a possible war
to dislodge it from power, President Bush, in an
important speech, took the issue to the United Nations.
Within days, Iraq accepted the unconditional return of
international arms inspectors.
Although the possibility of war with
Iraq in the coming months remains high, these recent
events have altered the calculations of the United States,
Iraq, the Arab states and the United Nations. They have
increased the chance of a broad international coalition
for a possible war, in case Iraq defies international
resolutions, while at the same time making such a
coalition less likely if Iraq continues to cooperate.
And that has complicated matters for
the Bush administration, which still wants a strong U.N.
resolution holding out the threat of war, but is running
into resistance from allies. Included in that group are
Arab states that could be key to the U.S. ability to wage
war, if it comes to that. Despite Vice President Dick
Cheney's recent statement that “moderates throughout the
region would take heart” at an Iraqi “regime change,” the
strategic reluctance of Arab states to support an
American-led war on Iraq should not be underestimated.
Arab countries did, in the end,
reportedly prod Iraq to accept inspectors, and Saudi
Arabia went so far as to say it might allow the United
States to use bases there to launch a war if Iraq defied
the United Nations. But the reality is that the leaders of
those countries remain terrified of war. Arab leaders do
fear Saddam, as the Bush administration has said. But they
fear even more their own people's opposition, possible
postwar chaos in Iraq and increased American power in the
The rapid-fire changes in the Iraq
crisis started after influential GOP leaders -- including
former Secretary of State James Baker -- urged U.N.
involvement. Some congressional leaders also began pushing
publicly for a multilateral approach. U.N.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan increased the pressure when
he warned, just before Bush was to address the United
Nations, that there is no substitute for the legitimacy
bestowed by the Security Council.
Speaking only one day after the
emotional anniversary of the Sept. 11 horror, the
president in turn challenged the United Nations to enforce
its resolutions. Although he issued no ultimatum to Iraq,
he clearly laid the ground for a new U.N. resolution in
the coming weeks that would give such an ultimatum, backed
by the threat of force.
The president's speech had an impact
on the calculations of many members of the Security
Council and others with special interest in the Iraq
issue, such as the Arab states. The strongest case that
the United States could make against Iraq was not that
Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Others in the
international community have more advanced capabilities,
including India, Pakistan and Israel. The difference is
this: Iraq contracted to remove its weapons of mass
destruction after its 1991 defeat, and was obligated to
cooperate with U.N. inspectors and to implement U.N.
By focusing this time on Baghdad's
violation of these resolutions, President Bush succeeded
in challenging the Security Council into action. But some
of the countries that eventually lent the United States
support may have acted not because the president convinced
them Saddam was an immediate threat, but because they were
frightened by the prospect of a unilateral American
military campaign without the cover of international
While the United States stands to
lose much international support if it acts alone, the
authority of the United Nations would also be severely
In the days that followed President
Bush's U.N. speech, the pressure on Iraq to accept the
return of inspectors without delay mounted. Security
Council members, such as France and Russia, which had been
urging multilateral action to end the crisis, found it
harder to resist introducing a new tough resolution that
could lay the ground for possible war with Iraq. And Arab
leaders, who had been universally opposed to a unilateral
American campaign against Iraq, also felt they could not
resist U.N.-mandated action. These changed positions,
coupled with extensive diplomatic efforts to persuade Iraq
to readmit inspectors quickly, may have convinced the
government of Saddam Hussein that the tide was shifting.
Saddam then, last week, said the
inspectors could come back unconditionally, and the
surprise move led to almost immediate squabbling between
America and its allies about whether any new resolutions
Regardless of the outcome of that
debate in the coming weeks, it is important to understand
that opposition in the Middle East to war with Iraq --
whether U.N.-sanctioned or not -- is widespread and is
based on strategic and political calculations. Arab
leaders worry above all about the possible disintegration
of Iraq, or continued instability emanating from Iraq, and
they do not find American assurances to the contrary
credible. They see the task of maintaining Iraq's
territorial integrity and preventing meddling by regional
rivals as potentially overwhelming.
While most in Iraq may be happy to
rid themselves of Saddam, others may not; no ruler governs
alone, and many in the state's extensive power structure
and the factions associated with them will be fearful if
the government falls. The prospect of revenge by repressed
segments of society will be high, and the factionalism
that characterizes Iraqi society will most likely be
The Kurds in the north will push for
maximum autonomy, and the prospect of a Kurdish state
would concern Turkey, which has its own large Kurdish
population. The majority of Iraq's Shiites, meanwhile,
would want friendly religious and cultural ties with Iran.
That could clash with U.S. objectives of confronting Iran
and add to Iraq's instability.
But Arab leaders' worries don't stop
there. They also fear a sustained U.S. presence meant to
prevent such chaos. If the United States commits to the
deployment of the necessary military, political and
economic resources to assure Iraq's stability, many of
Iraq's neighbors, and others in the region, fear a
possible American military and political dominance that
would then include Iraq in a way that alters the strategic
picture to their disadvantage.
Governments in the region generally
favor preventing Iraq from becoming a nuclear power,
especially under Saddam. Even gulf states such as the
United Arab Emirates that fear Iran more than they fear
Iraq and worry about weakening Iraq too much, support
measures to limit Iraq's nuclear capabilities, including
reinstating international monitors. But some of those same
states also worry about overwhelming American power in the
region (and in Syria's case, Israeli strategic dominance).
One of the biggest reasons for
regional reluctance to support an American military effort
to topple Iraq's government is concern for public opinion.
Although states in the region remain very powerful in
their domestic control, no state can fully ignore public
sentiment in the era of the information revolution. What
is the public sentiment in Arab countries?
First, most people don't understand
that U.N. resolutions are the basis of the policy to
prevent Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction,
so they see that policy as an American strategy intended
to prevent only Arab states from acquiring such weapons.
Second, those who understand the role
of U.N. resolutions raise questions about “double
standards” in applying them, always with examples from the
Arab-Israeli conflict. And they ask, in any case, why it
is that the United States, not the United Nations, should
make the ultimate decision authorizing a war.
Third, while some almost wish for an
Arab country to have a nuclear deterrent, even if it is
possessed by Saddam, most don't believe that it is likely.
They see Iraq to be helpless, and see the entire focus on
this issue as tactical, intended to justify America's
desire to keep Iraq in a box, or to justify a possible war
on it. This view has intensified in recent months, with
the public in the region increasingly resentful of
American policy, and seeing the United States as
dominating the decisions at the United Nations.
Fourth, there is continued empathy
with the suffering of Iraq's population and a prevailing
assumption that U.N. sanctions, not the Iraqi government,
are to blame.
Ultimately, most states in the region
do not see Iraq as currently posing a serious enough
threat to them to warrant a war that could significantly
alter the regional environment and present them with hard
choices internally and externally. Certainly not all of
Iraq's neighbors have the same calculations, and the
interests of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council
-- including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab
Emirates -- are different from those of Jordan, Turkey,
Syria and Iran. And there are differences even within the
Most Arab states, however, see U.S.
policy on this issue as being driven by domestic politics,
or by strategic designs to consolidate American dominance
or secure Israeli interests. The real issue is whether
they have to accommodate the United States, because
opposing U.S. actions could leave them at a disadvantage
if war becomes inevitable. They expect the United States
would inevitably score a military victory, and no one
wants to be on the losing side.
Even if some Arab states ultimately
decide that joining forces with the United States is in
their best interest -- despite the risks -- we should have
no illusions: Most states and publics in the region dread
the prospect of war. If it is waged, they prefer that it
has international cover, but they prefer that it not be
waged at all.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI is Anwar Sadat
professor for peace and development at the University of
Maryland and senior fellow at the Saban Center at the
Brookings Institution. His newest book, “The Stakes:
America and the Middle East,” will be published in
November. He wrote this article for Perspective.
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