Americans See What Arabs Don't, and Vice Versa

Article excerpt

Saddam Hussein has thrown another roadblock in front of UN weapons inspectors. US officials are talking about a military strike, and some Americans say Saddam only understands force.

But most Arabs - even Kuwaitis - don't support a military response. It's not that they've suddenly decided they like or trust Saddam. Americans and Arabs alike would like to see him disappear. But there are fundamentally different perceptions between Americans and Arabs about Iraq, and about most Middle Eastern issues. These differences will bedevil our Iraq policy until we take them into account.

At a recent press conference, Defense Secretary William Cohen released a detailed report on chemical and biological weapons that pointed at Iraq as a serious threat to the world. At the same time, Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, was telling the Arab press that the Persian Gulf is now safe. One of the Arab world's most respected leaders, Sheikh Zayid reflected widespread Arab opinion when he said while Saddam had been a threat in 1990-91, the situation has changed, and the only people suffering today are the Iraqi people. At the heart of the American-Arab disagreement is a widespread Arab belief that the US is insisting on continued sanctions because it wants to destroy Iraq and it doesn't mind harming the Iraqi people in the process. US officials vehemently deny that sanctions are aimed at harming the Iraqi people, saying they are intended to persuade the Iraqi regime to change its behavior, and it is Saddam who is responsible for the people's suffering. He could end their misery if only he complied with the UN resolutions. Food and medicine were always exempted from the ban on imports into Iraq, they say, but Saddam diverted these goods to his cronies and available resources to building palaces. After Desert Storm, Americans assumed the Iraqi regime would change its ways. American officials believed Saddam could not hold out indefinitely, and that the continued pressure of sanctions and international controls would bring about a change in his behavior, or another reasonable leader would replace him. That, of course, didn't happen. Americans tend to consider the current threat serious and imminent. The US maintains a large military presence in the Gulf and is willing to use force. But the Arab states believe Iraq is weak and not a threat to anyone. …