An `American Peace' Won't Work

The post-war Gulf is not post-war Europe; the US must tread lightly a new path

AS talk turns to the postwar picture in the Persian Gulf, there is more frequent mention of a Pax Americana. But such an ``American Peace,'' to be shaped and enforced by the United States as part of George Bush's ``new world order,'' is a snare and a delusion. The idea derives from the world restored after 1945. Then, as now, the US was the natural leader of a coalition against aggression. It then, almost singlehanded, devised a system of military security, social stability, and economic recovery. American power alone was intact. The US had, in effect, all the money in the world. This shoe no longer fits.

The Middle East is not a community to be liberated, revived, and galvanized into recovery. It is, for all the talk of Arab unity, a tangle of conflicting interests. Many countries are beset by corruption and incompetence. The ``Islamic fundamentalists'' who shake the capital cities are not so much partisans of Saddam Hussein as political dissidents who use the Koran as a battle cry for revolutionary change. The architects of peace will not be dealing with familiar building blocks but with fluid, inflamm able forces.

In this new landscape, the first point of orientation is the fact that peace is indivisible. It embraces two separate but closely related elements: a stable equilibrium in the Gulf, and solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict centering on the Palestine problem. The United States is inextricably involved in both. Had Washington not responded to Saudi Arabia's cry for help, American influence there, and far beyond, would have suffered badly. It would have sunk to irrelevance in fashioning the peace and in s ecuring the world's main source of industrial energy. The goal of cheap oil, invoked in propaganda, is a red herring.

As for the Arab-Israeli dispute, Saddam Hussein has posed as champion of all Arabs who see themselves in a descending spiral of envy and frustration. He has with some effect, coupled the United States and ``Zionism'' as the enemy of Islam. To be sure, the integrity of a flourishing Israel is a major concern of the American people. The loss of Israel and its vibrant democracy would signal American impotence. However, bearing in mind that total security for one side means total insecurity for the other, t he US must seek a pragmatic balance. The increasingly racist and colonialist aspects of the Shamir government's policy in the occupied territories, in violation of the Geneva conventions, make this very difficult. On the other hand, the spectacle of Chairman Yasser Arafat of the PLO cheering Saddam Hussein and his Scud missiles has deeply offended moderate Israelis.

THERE is also no doubt that Arab regimes have exploited the Palestinian problem both in their regional power game and in their domestic politics to divert attention from their serious failings. But easily aroused public anger over the denial of Palestinian self-determination is genuinely a matter of internal stability for governments which must join Israel in making peace. And it renders the US vulnerable to extremist abuse.

In a sense, the political earthquake in the Arabian peninsula when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait may have helped to clear a way to peace by shattering fixed attitudes. The Scud missile attacks may have shown Israel that security lies not in annexing the West Bank and the Golan Heights but in cultivating good neighbors. Israel's putative role as the United States's main ally is seen in a different light when it is asked in this conflict for heaven's sake to sit still. And the Saudis must have learned tha t they cannot continue as a closed society buying off their Arab adversaries.

Saddam Hussein's hideous arsenal dictates a regional security system with effective arms control, especially for weapons of mass destruction. Israel, with its nuclear stockpile, must obviously be at the table when this is negotiated. The spread between the rich and poor Arab states, source of such bitter rancor, calls for a regional development plan to which Israel could contribute on a scale undreamed of.

In all this, the US presence would be important but not determinant as it is now. Trying to run the show would get it all the tomatoes and none of the applause. Washington must captain a team effort more delicate and complex than its diplomacy has ever handled.

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