CAIRO — AMERICAN discussion of ``a new world order'' has spurred questions about the long-term aims of the United States in the Middle East. Even among Arab states supporting the US against Iraq, such as Egypt, many are asking: ``Whose new world order?'' Many Arab critics agree that Washington has not shown the cultural sensitivity to formulate longterm strategies for the region that take into account Arab aspirations.
Yet, with the end of East-West confrontation and the lower profile of the Soviet Union in the Arab world, there is a recognition that no other country has the ability or will to influence change in the region. But any legitimate new world order, these critics say, must address the needs of poor Arab states, the issues of political liberalization, and a resolution of the Palestinian problem.
``He [President Bush] is talking of an `us' and `them.' But who is the `us' and who is the `them'?'' asks Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, a well-regarded Egyptian writer and left-wing politician. ``There must be more accountability to the poor, more democratic institutions. This is more in keeping with a new world order.''
For Mr. Sayed Ahmed, the diminished role of the Soviet Union in international affairs has radically altered the decades-old balance between Middle Eastern states.
``In a bipolar world - America versus the Soviet Union - it was possible to have a bipolar Arab world. There were the Gulf states with no army, no population, and no democratic institutions but great wealth. Their protection came from the West.
``On the other side were the poor Arab states - like Egypt - with some democratic institutions, big armies, and big populations, but little money. We could play off the two sides.
``With the disappearance of the bipolar world, there is a new strategy: Can you grab the wealth and get away with it?''
With or without an American-inspired ``new world order,'' Ahmed has no doubt that the Middle East has entered a crucial period, one in which the catalyst for change has been Iraqi President Saddam Hussein - not US President Bush.
``The Arab world will never again be what it was. Never. It's finished, the imbalance between the rich, the poor,'' he says.
Fahmy Howeidy, a specialist in Islamic affairs and a columnist for Al-Ahram newspaper, cautions Washington against goals that can't be met. The US, he points out, must appreciate that even Europe is far from settled politically. How then, he asks, can the US attempt to impose stability on the volatile Middle East?
``From our side, as Arabs or Muslims, from our experience, we do not have this trust. We found in the past that the superpowers played the game defending their own interests. With the Palestinian problem we realized that the superpowers were denying Palestinians their legitimate rights,'' Mr. Howeidy says.
Saddam has accused America and its coalition of having imperialist designs on the area. Given the history of Western interference in the region, many Arabs are sympathetic to the charges.
``We here in Egypt, most of us, do not like Saddam. We hate Saddam,'' Howeidy says. ``But we are sure that his propaganda against the West on this point in particular is correct.''
According to Washington, a principle of this ``new world order'' is that aggression against national sovereignty will not be tolerated. And, in the desert plains of northeastern Saudi Arabia, what some have called ``the long arm of Western interests'' is committed to achieving what Arab diplomacy could not: to end Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.
But Arab analysts point to the cultural barriers that they say have contributed to the failure of Western diplomatic efforts. In general, even those supportive of the US-led campaign are cynical about the US's ability to effect positive changes in the region.
``Saddam Hussein is a character out of the 17th, 18th centuries - a despot. He is a state builder, like the European rulers who built their countries by war, occupation, and annexation,'' says an Arab academic at an US-funded think tank here. ``That is why you are having these totally opposing discourses, with the US talking about rules and UN mandates - things that Saddam Hussein does not recognize.''
He was pessimistic, as well, about the postwar situation.
``The problem, like with many other American things, is that they do not know what they want to do after this.
``It is a problem-solving mentality, without the European sense of great vision or long-term plan,'' the academic says.
``The war is a projection of American power. If they prevail, as they say they will, then of course they have a number of short- to medium-term practical claims that they will try to achieve,'' he says.
``But this war is basically about the distribution of power in the international system. Bush and the ruling elite are trying to assert their military power during a time when their international economic power is not so strong. But they have presented it as the defense of strategic interests and the values of their justice system.
``Forget about world order. What they are concerned about in the Middle East is the price of oil,'' the Arab academic says.