CAIRO — This time around, the Middle East regional aspects of the Washington-Baghdad crisis are very different from the lineup at the time of Desert Storm. Dangerously so.
On the surface, much might seem the same, such as the pictures of Israeli citizens lining up for gas masks while American and British aircraft carriers steam into the Persian Gulf.
But in 1991, Washington went to war with the support of a strong, UN-based international coalition that included the major Arab states. Israel's leadership, back then, was warned to stay out of the fighting, even if that should involve - as it did - "absorbing" Iraqi missile strikes.
The diminishment of Washington's international backing this time around is starkly evident. In 1990-91, Egypt lent its huge political weight and several thousand troops to Desert Storm. Saudi Arabia contributed troops, planes, airfields, and staging areas. Even Syria sent troops.
This time, none of that is happening. Further, the Clinton administration seems to have given Israel's hard-line leadership a free hand to join the military fray in response to Iraqi missile hits.
No one I've spoken to here - from presidential adviser Dr. Osama al-Baz to the common folk on the street - is convinced that there is any justification for Washington's military alert. In 1990-91, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait provided clear cause for counter-action. This time, even Egyptians sympathetic to Kuwait do not see Saddam's actions as justifying a military response.
"He poses no threat to his neighbors," one Egyptian analyst said. "And over the years, UNSCOM has made substantial gains in identifying and destroying his unconventional arsenal. Why the big fuss now? The attempt to sort the present problems through diplomacy must be given time."
Egyptian diplomat Ismat Abdel-Meguid, who heads the 22-nation Arab League, has been deeply involved with the diplomacy. On Monday, he returned here from Baghdad with a new offer from Saddam to enable UN inspectors to visit the 68 formerly closed sites. Meguid is working with France and Russia to craft a new Council resolution on the issue.
"The use of force will never, never, and I repeat never solve the problem," he said. "It will complicate the problem."
Presidential adviser Baz was equally adamant that the use of force by Washington would only backfire. "It will raise immediately for all Arabs the old issue of double standards," he warned, referring to Washington's tolerant attitude toward Israel's covert nuclear arsenal, while it threatens force against Iraq for its suspected pursuit of far less developed unconventional weapons programs.
And this time, unlike 1991, Washington can use no credible offer of revamped Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy to cement Arab support. Indeed, Washington's perceived mishandling and pro-Israeli partisanship in the peace diplomacy of recent years provide a further source of strong anti-US resentment among most Arabs.
Dr. Baz's long record in Egyptian diplomacy included high-level engagement in former President Anwar Sadat's peacemaking with Israel. He warned the Clintonites against going along with hard-line ideas coming from Capitol Hill - primarily, that the use of force should aim at ousting Saddam, not just punishing him.
"That's folly," Baz warned. "People who argue for that don't know anything about the psychology of people under siege. Here in Egypt, in 1956, the British and French thought their military attack would launch a wave of refugees who would march to Cairo and depose President Nasser. Instead, it just strengthened Nasser's grip on power. It made him president for life - and he lived 18 more years. The same would happen with any attempt to do that to Saddam."
For Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Washington's other Arab friends, the stakes are very high. On the one hand, they have real hopes that diplomacy can fix the current problems with Iraq. But, they warn, if Washington preempts diplomacy with a military strike, political chaos would soon engulf the region.
* Helena Cobban is a longtime observer of Middle Eastern politics.