Arabs Assess Mixed Legacy of War

Activists say war aftermath has revived peace process, but undermined Arab 'political map'

ONE year ago today, Clovis Maksoud, then the Arab League ambassador to the United States, was driving to Washington's Dulles airport to catch a flight to Beirut. Although well aware of the crisis shaping up between Iraq and Kuwait, he was caught by surprise when news of Iraq's invasion was announced on his car radio."My first reaction was to be stunned and unbelieving," he recalls. Three hundred miles away, James Zogby, director of a leading Arab-American organization, was enjoying a restful vacation on the beach. When he flipped on the television to catch the morning headlines, he was "dumbfounded" to learn the news from Kuwait. "I knew right away that everything was going to be different," he says. Across the Atlantic, El Sayed Abdel El Reedy, Egypt's ambassador to the US, was also vacationing. Bidden by a bicycle-riding messenger to the only telephone in a small Mediterranean village, he was told of the invasion by a Foreign Ministry official. Rushing back to Cairo, he arrived to hear an Iraqi official tell a meeting of bewildered Arab foreign ministers that a new era was beginning in the Middle East. "If the seven heavens fall on earth," the Iraqi confidently proclaimed, "the family of Sabah [Kuwait's rulers] will never go back to Kuwait." Although the seven heavens apparently have not fallen, the Sabahs are back, and Iraq is out of their country. And, as these and other prominent Arab figures in the US reflect on a historic 12 months, they say Iraq's aggression and the Western-led response have left the Middle East with a mixed legacy. The most hopeful development is that by demonstrating the unacceptability of conquest and occupation, the Gulf crisis has energized peacemaking on another front. The crisis has given an impetus to US efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table, efforts which now appear on the verge of success.

Opposition modified As pressure to end Israel's 24-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has grown, some Arab states, led by Syria, have cautiously modified their longstanding opposition to dealing directly with the Jewish state. "There's more willingness to take risks, to stick your neck out [as a result of the crisis]," says Mr. Reedy, whose government paid a high price for normalizing relations with Israel a decade ago. "Arab public opinion is growing to be more realistic and is accepting more of the realities." "Where was Syria one year ago and where is Syria today?" asks Reedy, pointing to Damascus's agreement to negotiate with Israel and Saudi Arabia's conditional willingness to abandon a 43-year Arab economic boycott of Israel as indices of change produced by the Gulf crisis. But if aggression has been thwarted and Kuwait restored, the crisis has left many Arabs with a vague feeling of disquiet. "One year later I think that the Arab political map is at a low ebb," Mr. Maksoud says. "Everything has changed," says Mr. Zogby, who is executive director of the Arab American Institute. "The fact of the invasion and the occupation of Kuwait has transformed inter-Arab relations, Arab identity, and Arab relations with the West in very significant ways." At one level, the disquiet stems from the destruction through war and continuing economic boycott of a viable Arab state, for which most Arabs hold Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein accountable. "Once you know that an Arab state can behave so brutally, it does something to the psyche of the whole region," Zogby says. At another level, concern stems from the disruption produced in relations among Arab peoples. Even, for example, as Gulf states pledge fealty to Palestinian rights, Palestinians have fallen under heavy suspicion or are even being expelled and persecuted because of the support of some for the Iraqi side. Arab spokesmen also fret that Iraq's conquest - the first annexation in modern times of one Arab state by another - has dealt a serious blow to the Arab state system and to notions of Arab unity. The immediate consequence of the invasion was a division between Arab states that supported and opposed Saddam. The division was deepened by disagreements over whether the Arab League should be given time to resolve the crisis before asking for outside help. Many Arabs remain angered that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak aborted Arab League mediation efforts by forcing passage of a pro-Western resolution at an emergency Arab League summit in Cairo a week after the Iraqi invasion. The resolution cleared the way for US-led intervention in Saudi Arabia but closed it to the possibility of an Arab solution to the Gulf crisis. "That mediation should have been undertaken," Maksoud says. "If it had succeeded, we would have avoided the tragedy of war. If it had failed, we would have avoided division in the Arab world." "The fact that it was not tried is a historical indictment of the Arab League," says Maksoud, who resigned in protest after the Cairo meeting.

Consensus on big issues Although Arab solidarity was more rhetorical than real, it was usually sufficient to produce a consensus on big issues, as when, in 1979, Egypt broke ranks to sign the Camp David treaty with Israel. Egypt was instantly ostracized by every other Arab state and only recently welcomed back into the fold. Arab leaders point to the Arab League-brokered Taif agreement that brought 15 years of civil war in Lebanon to an end as an example of what might have been achieved given more time. Instead, the 12-9 vote in Cairo registered an unprecedented division that, in the aftermath of the crisis, is forcing a rethinking of the Arab League from the bottom up. If it prompts Arab states to imitate the European Community by relinquishing a measure of sovereignty to a revitalized Arab League, it could prove a blessing in disguise, Maksoud and others say. "The Kuwait invasion made the notion of Arab national solidarity appear to be flimsy," says Maksoud. "We need to recharge the batteries of Arabity." In addition to exposing internecine divisions, the Gulf crisis exposed the excessive dependency of many Arab states on the West and revived old fears of outside domination that are the continuing legacy of centuries of foreign rule. Dependence on the West has also rekindled nagging questions of Arab identity that were once obscured by the muscular Arab nationalism of the post-World War II era, and that remain a part of the ideology of the Arab world.

Wary of West's embrace Even Arab states aligned with the coalition were wary of more than a temporary embrace with the West. This is one reason why these same states, including Saudi Arabia, are reluctant to host an American security force or to sanction further military against Iraq's nuclear facilities. Reluctance on the subject of outside intervention has been fueled by what many Arabs see as an excessive use of military power to subjugate Iraq. Arabs wonder, in Maksoud's words, why the freedom of one Arab country necessitated the destruction of another. "Iraq's fundamental mistake was not only confined to what it did to Kuwait," Maksoud says. "By its behavior, it made itself the vehicle for allowing the area to become an arena for outside nations to project power. "There's a certain bitterness you find throughout the third world and the Arab world about Saddam Hussein's actions," he continues. "Iraq has brought back certain memories which we thought were overtaken by events."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Arabs Assess Mixed Legacy of War
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today