For Arabs, Iraq Crisis Showcased Flawed US Role

Sympathy for Iraqis outweighed fear of Saddam. Did US stand erode its clout?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Iraqi woman thought she knew Americans well: Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, she had received a degree at the American Cultural Center in Baghdad. She was about to begin an advanced business course, but the war got in the way.

Ban Selman speaks fondly of American friends who helped her out. But since then, her attitude toward America has changed. She tearfully walks with her brother through the ruins of the Amiriya shelter, where two American bombs killed up to 400 Iraqi civilians - including her mother and several other family members seven years ago this month.

Under threat of American airstrikes again, she at first refuses to speak: "We don't want to talk to Americans," Ms. Selman says. "Because Americans say they love human beings, but they are proving these words wrong. All they want in the Middle East is food and oil."

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"We love Americans," confides her brother, Ahmed. "But give us a chance to prove we love peace."

For many in the Arab world, the recent high-stakes US-Iraq standoff over United Nations weapons inspectors has brought to a boil long-growing disillusionment with US Mideast policy.

Before UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Baghdad to broker a peaceful solution over the weekend, violent pro-Iraq demonstrations in the Palestinian territories and Jordan pointed to the depth of unrest that has grown in the past year and a half, as the Arab-Israeli peace process has all but collapsed.

But underlying this disillusionment, Arab analysts say, is a fundamental reexamination of how America's role in the Middle East is perceived. Across the region, few Arab leaders supported military strikes against Iraq, saying that the Iraqi people would suffer more than the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

Still, US officials soldiered on with hard rhetoric until the last moment. Few here agreed with Mr. Annan's appraisal Tuesday that the US and Britain had acted as "perfect UN peacekeepers" - willing to show force, so that force would not have to be used.

'A critical stage'

"This is a critical stage in the development of the Arab mind," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "I don't want to see the America I respect for its democratic institutions and values leave this [bad] impression [that creates] a sense of martyrdom instead of dialogue."

Ironically, it was the Gulf War that first broke the Arab perception that US policy was irreversibly pro-Israel. That helped the US begin engineering the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Former President George Bush built a coalition of Western and Arab forces to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. Even Syria - still technically at war with Israel - sent troops to the front. US influence kept Israel from responding militarily when Iraq launched Scud missiles against the Jewish state, and this helped persuade Arab leaders Mr. Bush was serious about the US playing a constructive role for peace.

That impetus has long since dissolved, analysts say. The peace process began to fall apart in February 1996, and the policies of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - almost universally blamed in the Arab world for undermining the peace process - are seen to have nearly finished it off.

Why not press Israel?

But the Clinton administration is also widely blamed, among Arabs, for not applying sufficient pressure to Israel to jump-start peace talks. The result has been that violence has waxed and waned in Palestinian territories, fueling anxiety elsewhere.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat publicly appealed for Palestinians not to demonstrate for Iraq, though he sided with Saddam during the Gulf War.

Jordan's King Hussein also threw in his hat with the Iraqi leader in 1990, in part because of strong street support among half the population, who are Palestinian. Since then, Jordan has switched allegiances, signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994 and accepting American cash and military hardware.

President Clinton has declared Jordan a "special non-NATO ally," but unrest over the king's pro-West stance has made him vulnerable at home. Though pro-Iraq demonstrations were banned, Jordanians and Palestinians have clashed with riot police and the army.

"American policymakers are not aware of the state of uneasiness in the Middle East," says US-educated Mohammed Aziz Shukri, head of international law at Damascus University in Syria. If the US launched military attacks against Iraq now, he says, "America might as well wipe its name away as a superpower with any credibility in the Mideast."

Misperceptions on both sides about what constitutes a threat are deep. Though often dismissed by Western analysts, Arabs constantly refer to respect for Arab dignity, the need to be seen to never back down when threatened, and saving face.

Insignificant as these may sound, the debate in the US also took on a similar hue, with Republican leaders in Congress declaring that a peaceful solution meant that Mr. Clinton had "lost" his duel with Saddam.

Despite widespread views to the contrary around the Middle East, the Clinton administration has implied that, should Saddam violate treaties again, the US will find more friends in the region. "If we have to act militarily, it is my belief that we will have much greater international support for having gone this extra mile [through diplomacy]," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said.

At the back of the minds of wary Gulf leaders is the Iraq crisis of August-September 1996. Iraqi troops crossed into northern Iraq, considered a "safe haven" for Kurds by the US. Gulf leaders say they were barely consulted before Clinton ordered missile attacks against air defense systems in southern Iraq.

This, say Gulf officials, was the first indication that the Gulf War coalition built by Mr. Bush was crumbling. This time, US allies Turkey, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia refused to let the US launch any attacks from their soil. Only Kuwait, reluctantly, agreed.

Analysts say the disconnect between Washington and the situation on the ground is starkly obvious, and means that any attack against Iraq might threaten long-term US interests in the region.

In Washington, the crisis over enforcing UN Security Council resolutions that require Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction grew into a mission to save "our children and grandchildren," to use Clinton's words.

In the Middle East, there is general agreement on one thing: Few here - Arab and Western sources alike - felt that a credible endgame had been spelled out by the administration.

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