John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available from the AET Book Club.
A Straits Times poll of 97 senior government officials, diplomats, think tank experts and businessmen--people who could be regarded as fairly "establishment" figures--gave statistical evidence of the overwhelming opposition in East, Southeast and South Asia to a U.S. military attack on Iraq. The poll was conducted by the newspaper's correspondents in China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan in the last two weeks of August. Of these countries, only Malaysia and Indonesia have a Muslim majority and might have been expected to be particularly sensitive to events in the Middle East, but opposition was general.
Asked "Would you back U.S. military action to topple Saddam Hussain?", 69.1 percent said "no" and only 13.4 percent said "yes." This was despite 28.9 percent agreeing that Saddam is a "threat to global stability" (versus 39.1 percent who disagreed). Respondents were more prepared to countenance an attack if there was evidence that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists: in this case, 37.1 percent would support such action and 23.7 percent said they would be opposed. Nearly 50 percent thought that anti-U.S. sentiments were rising because of unilateral actions by Washington. There were worries that an attack could have a serious negative impact upon Asia, with 73.2 percent fearing it would adversely affect Asian economies. Asked what they feared most about a war, 30.5 percent said a worsening of the economic situation, followed by unrest or violence (22.3 percent) and political instability (13.5 percent).
Despite the small size of the poll, it probably reflects quite well the sentiments of the population at large. On a daily basis, the media report the debates going on in the U.S. and worldwide about the possibility of an American attack on Iraq. Press commentaries also overwhelmingly argue against an attack. There is relatively little strident anti-U.S. comment, however. Most criticism is presented in a measured way--although not usually quite as measured as the headline of an Aug. 13 Singapore Business Times editorial: "U.S. attack on Iraq a bad idea." That particular editorial concluded by warning:
"Ironically, while the Bush administration has yet to prove that Iraq has provided any support to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, its decision to go to war against Iraq may end up serving Osama bin Laden's objective of destabilizing the Middle East and intensifying anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and among Muslims in general. From that perspective, a U.S. military victory in Iraq could prove to be a defeat in the war against terrorism."
Nor are the arguments advanced by those in the U.S. who advocate an attack on Iraq simply dismissed out of hand in the region. Most people would agree that Saddam Hussain's regime is tyrannical to an exceptional degree and that it is a menace to its neighbors; many accept that Saddam may be developing weapons of mass destruction, although there is considerable skepticism about claims that he has links with Bin Laden. They just do not accept that a full-scale military assault by the U.S. is the best way to tackle these problems. They believe that a multilateral, broad consensus-based approach would be far better, preferably taken through the United Nations and aimed, first of all, at the re-introduction of U.N. weapons inspectors.
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