Not a Military Threat

By Fandy, Mamoun | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Not a Military Threat


Fandy, Mamoun, The World and I


Saddam is not a military threat to the Middle East, but he has become a political nightmare not only for the United States but also for its Arab allies.

With its aggressive policies and terrible human-rights record, Saddam Hussein's regime is repugnant. This much the United States and its Arab allies agree upon. There the agreement ends, however.

With the exception of Kuwait, Arab regimes do not see Saddam as a military threat. But as time drags on and the suffering of the Iraqi people continues, he becomes a political nightmare not only for the United States but also for its Arab allies.

As we discuss Saddam Hussein, we have to differentiate between the Iraqi people and their current despotic regime. Unlike most American policymakers, Arab regimes and their citizens see the Iraqis as people like themselves, who presently have the misfortune of living under the worst regime in the region--a tragedy comparable only to the sufferings of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Within the Arab world, Saddam has been very skillful at deflecting blame from himself by propagating the view that both the Iraqis and the Palestinians are victims of outside powers. U.S. policies and rhetoric have unwittingly helped to support this view. Two political realities make Saddam a political disaster for the United States and its standing in the region: (1) the failed balance of power in the Gulf and (2) the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

The failed balance of power in the Gulf has pushed the United States to flirt with the notion of a premature opening toward Iran, which some Arab regimes see as a threat. The Arab Gulf states supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, after all, and the Saudi Islamist opposition considers Shiite Iran to be a state of heretics whose proximity makes it a grave danger.

Second, because of America's inability to force the Israeli government to accept even the minimal demands of the Palestinians, the Arab public has become more and more outraged at U.S. Middle East policy. Thus Saddam Hussein has become an excellent barometer. When Saddam's military illuminates Western fighter planes or his police deny weapons inspectors access to sites, he is not "testing Western resolve," as many commentators and officials claim; he is merely capitalizing on the contradictions of U.S. policy in the region.

Every time some botched policy has increased anti-American sentiment and made Arab governments allied with the United States look weak, Saddam manufactures a crisis to make the United States look even worse. And virtually every time, the United States rises to the bait, launches a missile attack that kills civilians, and makes itself look like a bully in the eyes of an increasingly outraged Arab public.

Instead, every time there is a confrontation with Iraq, U.S. policymakers ought to ask themselves what they are doing wrong. Better still, they should ask their allies rather than assuming that think tanks in Washington know more about the Middle East than people who have lived in the region all their lives.

The main problem is that except for ad hoc responses to crises, the United States does not seem to have any coherent Middle East policy, Peace between Arabs and Israelis and the secure flow of Gulf oil at reasonable prices represent two major aims of U.

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