Behind Saddam Hussein's Moves

SADDAM HUSSEIN is an appalling dictator whose rule in Iraq has turned the place into a graveyard for democracy. Everyone knows that, especially Arabs. But in the American campaign to demonize, isolate, and destroy him for his shocking invasion of Kuwait, Saddam has been inaccurately separated from the environment and politics that have produced him and that have been shaped to a considerable degree by US Middle East policies. The Middle East is not just an oil-producing desert, but an overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim region, filled with its own histories, societies, and political dynamics. This, I think, urgently requires consideration now, not only because Arabs will bear the brunt of suffering and destruction, but because the current crisis is incomprehensible otherwise.

The disappearance of a society due to invasion and annexation is a grave and tragic thing. The scale of human sorrow that will attend Kuwait's demise is horrific: Lives will be permanently disrupted or lost, families separated, work and livelihoods ended.

Yet all had not been well in the Gulf before. The regimes there were viewed by most Arabs as flawed, complicit in oil production geared not to Arab requirements but to American needs, powerless to object when American support of Israel exhibited permissiveness and hypocrisy. In return for the unimpeded flow of oil, Gulf leaders got promises (and in the Saudi instance the presence) of American military support. The Gulf rulers - the Kuwaitis were typical - spent some money on regional development and gave considerable help to the Palestinian movement, but the bulk of their vast wealth was deposited in the West.

A mounting Arab resentment perceived that the main national resource of the Arab world was held in thrall to Western consumers. In addition, Gulf leaders were forced to endure abasement and humiliation by the supporters of Israel when they petitioned Washington to buy US weapons.

Saddam is a deeply unattractive, indeed revoltingly tough and callous leader, who has suppressed personal freedoms, subjected his gifted and hard-working people to unimaginable rigors, and harassed and invaded his neighbors. But he is neither mad nor, I would suggest, an unexpected figure to emerge out of the desolation that has characterized recent Arab history. He is admired today by many Arabs who deplore his methods, but who say the world is essentially dominated by powers who invade, grab land, and attempt to change governments.

Turkey seized part of Cyprus a few years ago; the Russians invaded Afghanistan; the US has bombed or invaded Grenada, Libya, and only a matter of months ago, Panama, because it suited its interests, as defined by the president. Above all, every Arab is agonizingly aware that because of an American green light the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, killed 20,000 people, attempted to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and set up a basically puppet government.

The US did not apply sanctions to Israel, and continues in fact to subsidize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and a part of South Lebanon. At the UN the US blocked any censure of Israel; together the two countries defied the entire world, with the US permitting only resolutions to pass that ``regretted'' the ``violence on both sides,'' a phrase both cynical and insulting. The habitual American leniency toward Israel confirms an indecent double standard at work.

Saddam thus sees himself as acting not only to secure Iraqi interests - Kuwait has long been regarded as part of Iraqi territory and for the past several months has increased oil production at considerable cost to Iraq - but also Arab interests. He fought, and was supported, in his Arab war against ``Persia.'' He has expressed contempt for the Arab ``moderates'' who became American clients and who, like Mubarak of Egypt and al-Saud of Arabia, have slid from the center of Arab politics to their margins.

We should not therefore underestimate Saddam's appeal to Arabs who feel that nothing less than the future of Arab civilization is at stake. Historically opposed by the West, regarded with contempt and through a racist optic that considers Arabs mainly as greasy oil-suppliers, terrorists, or camel-jockeys, a resurgent Arab nationalism has taken heart from the resistance embodied in the Palestinian intifadah, the various Islamic groupings, and the Iraqi president.

What, in turn, America and its allies have continually offered (besides unrestricted support for Israel) is an endless postponement of Palestinian self-determination and a denigration of Arab sovereignty over Arab destiny. In aiding Abdul Abbas against Yasser Arafat's flagging PLO policy of moderation and compromise, Saddam was beginning to collect his major nationalist cards for the big confrontation which, one feels certain, he knew he would have to face. He saw the failure of a half-hearted and insultingly one-sided US policy to persuade Israel even to talk to Palestinians, as droves of Soviet Jews headed for Israel/Palestine, as Arab oil seemed perpetually hostage to local oligarchies in cahoots with Western oil companies, and as his own society suffered the traumatic after-effects of a war fought, he believed, on behalf of all Arabs. All this propelled him to speak as the head of a fragmented and cowering Arab world, apparently in need of his brashness, courage, and overweening will.

The consequences could be tragic. What we shall probably watch is not a skirmish or two but a full-scale engagement between a long-suppressed nationalist program in whose moral conviction and promises Saddam has wrapped himself and an American-led campaign designed principally to punish Saddam.

Nor is this all. The Palestinian drive toward self-determination is being dealt a grievous, perhaps even a catastrophic blow: It now seems to be both the Israeli and the Arab impulse to drive things back to the way they were in 1948, with the Arab states and Israel dealing with each other over Palestinian heads.

Governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordan are likely to recover badly, if at all, from the US rush to military reaction. Immense economic and ecological changes unforeseen in their scope will, I think, radically change the face of the whole Middle East. And I greatly fear that Arab nationalist hopes and cultural assertions will yet again be rechanneled into xenophobia, religious revivalism, and the politics of hostility and revenge.

No Arab can excuse today's ghastly spectacle of corrupt or unjust regimes, massive social and economic inequities, horrendously backward educational and cultural establishments, overblown security apparatuses and abrogated democratic freedoms. But, I submit, the Western - and especially the American - failure not to draw out the Arabs in a real dialogue, to take their hopes and fears seriously, has contributed to much of what is unattractive in the Arab world.

Rather than leaving the US response to Iraq in its present bare-knuckled form, George Bush should address the Arab world as he would any other great people or culture, offering understanding and community. The US would reap even greater disasters were it now simply to return to the old modus vivendi and fail concretely to link the unacceptability of Iraq's occupation with Israel's.

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