Saddam Hussein has become an excellent barometer of the failure of US policy in the Middle East.
He is not "testing US resolve," as many commentators and officials claim. He is merely capitalizing on the contradictions of US policy in the region.
Every time some botched policy has increased anti-American sentiment and made Arab governments allied with the US look weak in the eyes of their citizens, Saddam manufactures a crisis to make the US look even worse. And the US rises to the bait virtually every time, launches a missile attack, and makes itself look like a bully in the eyes of an outraged Arab public.
The main problem is that the US does not seem to have any coherent Mideast policy. It relies on ad hoc responses to crises. True, peace between Arabs and Israelis and the secure flow of Gulf oil at reasonable prices represent two major aims of US policy. Yet even within that narrow focus, the US is not doing well. The Gulf states are not secure, and the peace process is not moving forward.
The shortsightedness of US policy in the Mideast is revealed not only in the collapse of the peace process and the current crisis with Iraq. It also is manifest in another event - this week's Doha economic conference in Qatar - which few Americans know about but which is closely related to the other two failures. The US tried to pressure Arab countries to attend so that they could begin forming economic ties with Israel.
But first, a closer look at Iraq. The current crisis has been manufactured by Saddam to capitalize on the sentiments of an Arab world outraged by America's support for - or at least very mild criticism of - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies, especially his backtracking on the peace agreement the Israeli government made with the Palestinians.
America's allies in the Arab world are serious about the peace process. They have invested heavily in it and can't afford the rage of their citizens. Arab discontent was made clear by the stances taken by US allies like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt concerning the crisis between the US and Iraq, as well as the upcoming Doha conference. The Gulf states, though hawkish on Saddam, are reluctant to get involved in the current showdown. Most feel they can't afford to pay the political price of having missiles launched at Iraq every now and then.
Such attacks give ammunition to Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalist critics, who can assert their leaders are helping non-Muslim foreigners kill Arab Muslims. Some in the region argue that if the US wants to take out Saddam, it should take him out in one operation. Also, whenever Saddam moves his troops, the US sends aircraft carriers and expect the Gulf states to pay for it. If Saddam moves his troops every few months, one Gulf diplomat suggests, he'll bankrupt the treasuries of the states the US intends to protect.
The Doha conference brings the problems of US foreign policy in the region into sharp focus. The US has little regard for local realities and insists on imposing its vision for the region. Despite opposition from major allies, the US forged ahead with plans for the conference. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have said they will not attend.
These countries are mindful of the response of their respective publics to any appearance they are simply following US dictates. From the Arab perspective, it is very difficult to justify attending a conference that aims at normalizing relations with Israel while TV images from the West Bank show nothing but more collective punishment, more settlements, more suffering.
Many senior Arab diplomats urged the US to consider postponing the Doha conference for at least six months. Even Arab businessmen and chambers of commerce aren't willing to go to Doha in such a politically charged atmosphere.
America's Arab allies also argue that by not attending the Doha conference, they may gain enough public credibility to be able to follow US wishes on larger issues. Their publics need to see that they don't always follow the US lead. Forced attendance, on the other hand, would play into the hands of those who don't wish to see any role for America in the region.
If good comes from this war of words with Iraq, it should be a US willing to reconsider its position on the Mideast and listen to its Arab allies. A continuation of the ad hoc policies is a recipe for disaster.
* Mamoun Fandy is a professor of politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and Judith Caesar is the author of "Crossing Borders: An American Woman in the Middle East" (Syracuse University Press).