Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Elephant and the Gulf Question

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Elephant and the Gulf Question

Article excerpt

There is an old joke, sometimes told on Palestinians and sometimes on Jews, but with the same basic punchline: There is an international competition for essays on the elephant. The various nations submit their work. The British have studied "the elephant in sport." The Germans have produced a multi-volume scientific treatise on the elephant, the Americans a glossy picture book. Then comes the next entry from a Palestinian (or Jew): "The Elephant and the Palestine Question" (or "Jewish Question"). The joke reminds us that many groups, for perhaps understandable reasons, will examine any problem, whether related or not, through the lens of their own particular preoccupations.

Lately, as the Gulf crisis has continued, we have begun to see a lot of discussions of the Gulf crisis in the context of the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian predicament. This can be dangerous, because it can distort the goals of any diplomatic (or military) operation and, perhaps, lead to unrealizable objectives being set.

Distorted Goals and Unrealizable Objectives

These preoccupations with the Israeli-Palestinian dimension of the Gulf crisis are coming from both Israelis and Palestinians, with both sides, and their foreign supporters, interpreting the meaning of the crisis in terms of their own concerns. Nor is this unjustified. Israel may very well find itself involved militarily, either through Iraqi action or its own, and Palestinians made up a substantial proportion of the workforce in Kuwait and are directly affected.

But here in Washington, many of those who have spent their careers dealing professionally with Middle Eastern affairs and who are therefore preoccupied with the Palestinian-Israeli issue from one side or another are also interpreting the Gulf crisis in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. At one recent panel in Washington which included Kuwaiti Ambassador Sheikh Saud Nasir, the first two questions asked had to do with Palestinian issues. Sheikh Saud informed the questioners -- both long-time Mideast hands with sympathies for the Arab world -- that he was there to talk about Kuwait, and that other issues would have to wait until Kuwait's immediate, day-to-day suffering was alleviated.

Many Americans, and others as well, see the Gulf primarily as some sort of sideshow to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not. It will have repercussions on that conflict, of course, but from the point of view of both intelligence assessment and national security decision making, it should be recognized as a separate issue, one which deeply engages American national interests as well as those of the region.

Seen Through a Distorting Lens

One example already visible of the tendency to view the Gulf crisis through a distorting lens has been the congressional effort to persuade the Bush administration to divide its proposed $20 billion-plus arms package for Saudi Arabia and offer only those weapons systems needed for immediate use in the crisis. Other systems with longer delivery times would be deferred for congressional consideration after the crisis, at which time, presumably, politics as usual would intrude. Yet the Gulf crisis has shown clearly that Saudi Arabia does have a self-defense requirement and that it needs much stronger and larger armed forces than it now has to deter future threats from its neighbors.

Another potential danger is that muddling the Gulf waters with the Israeli-Palestinian issue will confuse the goals of any operation in the Gulf. …

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