Five Years Later, Uneasy Stability in Middle East


FIVE years ago today, President Bush stepped to the rostrum in the House of Representatives and announced to cheering lawmakers that Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait had been repelled.

That war, fought to advance a world order based on what Mr. Bush described as ''the principles of justice and fair play,'' has had striking results, neutralizing Iraq and opening the door to negotiations that moved the Arab-Israeli conflict closer to resolution.

''The big threat of somebody who could dominate the Gulf and control the flow of oil and become a super-OPEC is gone,'' says University of Virginia Middle East specialist William Quandt, referring to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the global cartel that controls most oil exports.

But if the Iraqi threat remains at bay, other troubles bedevil a region that remains crucial to Western interests. Five years after the end of the Gulf war, Middle East experts point to the three most serious challenges to regional stability:

Palestinian militants, whose bombs have killed more than 55 Israelis in the past 10 days, pose a significant danger to a peace process that has so far led to a formal treaty between Israel and Jordan and promising Israeli negotiations with both Palestinians and Syria.

The long-term problem of providing security for US allies in the Gulf and the oil they export remains unresolved, despite the successful United States-led campaign against Iraq during the Gulf war.

Rapid population growth and inefficient economies are placing enormous pressure on many Arab regimes to keep up with spiraling demands for housing, jobs, and social services. The result, notes Mr. Quandt: ''the potential for protest-style politics throughout the region'' over the next one or two decades.

''We would have had some of these problems with or without the Gulf war,'' says Shibley Telhami, director of Cornell University's Near Eastern Studies Program and currently guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington.

''But thanks to the Gulf war the strategic situation has been frozen at least temporarily, there is no major military threat from Iraq today, and Middle East peacemaking has been more successful.''

Mercy for Saddam Hussein

Five years after the Gulf war, experts still debate whether the US could have done more to topple Saddam Hussein, who rules in Baghdad despite the 100-hour US air war that rained devastation on Iraq in 1991.

Critics fault Mr. Bush for failing to destroy Saddam's elite Revolutionary Guards, even at the cost of carrying the war to Baghdad. At a minimum, they say, Bush should have subjected Saddam to the humiliation of forcing him to appear at the formal surrender in Iraq's southern desert.

But Bush continues to defend his decision to stick with the more limited United Nations mandate calling for the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

''There we would be,'' Bush told David Frost in a recent interview, ''searching for this brutal dictator who had the best security in the world, involved in an urban guerrilla war [in Baghdad]. This is not a formula that I wanted to contemplate, and I think history will say we did the right thing.''

Saddam's continuing hold on power is one reason Gulf leaders still feel threatened five years after the Gulf war. As part of their defensive strategy they have come to rely on the permanent average deployment in the region of some 12,000 US soldiers and sailors.

But restive elements in the Gulf region, including conservative Islamic groups, see this Western presence not as a defense against potential aggressors but as an American ploy to preserve the rule of corrupt, undemocratic regimes. All of which makes overt US military cooperation with the Gulf states a virtual impossibility.

''The American presence is seen not in the perspective of defending Gulf states against external threats from Iran and Iraq but in the perspective of supporting an archaic system in the face of needed change,'' says Tahseen Basheer, a former spokesman for Egyptian Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat who is now a visiting scholar at the US Institute of Peace, in Washington. ''That makes the situation in the Gulf highly problematic.''

In the short term, the huge cost of the Gulf war has exacerbated social and political tensions in the Gulf states by forcing increases in taxes and cuts in government spending. Analysts see no immediate threat to Gulf stability but worry about the long-term consequences if pressures for wider political participation are ignored.

''Unless steps are taken to incorporate more people in the process of change in the Gulf then the situation could become worse than the situation of Iran in the last years of the Shah,'' says Mr. Basheer.

Under President Clinton, the US has endeavored to contain Iraq and Iran simultaneously. But experts describe the policy of ''dual containment'' as a stopgap strategy pegged - unrealistically, critics say - to the eventual collapse of both governments.

''No one envisions that Iraq will remain isolated and cut off from the international community beyond two to five years,'' says Mr. Telhami. ''Iraq will eventually come on line and we don't have a strategy to address its absorption into the international community and economy. Policymakers haven't even started thinking about that.''

Nearly $50 billion of the Pentagon's $270 billion annual budget pays for maintaining US forces in the Gulf region, including the newly created US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain. Billions more is spent on planning for the worst-case contingency of having to fight two major wars at once, including one in the Gulf.

The Gulf war was a significant triumph for Bush but it could have become a major disaster. Former administration officials acknowledge that if Saddam had been shrewd enough to make even a small conciliatory gesture in the months leading up to the war - ''If Saddam had moved one tank back 100 yards,'' says one - moderate Arab states might have been forced to quit the anti-Iraq coalition, leaving the US without the diplomatic cover it sought to prosecute a war against an Arab regime.

As it happened, the 28-nation coalition forged by Bush held. And in the aftermath of the military success that followed, the Bush administration was able to embark on one of the most successful peacemaking ventures of the post-World War II era.

Bush successfully used America's enhanced influence in the region to persuade Arab states to begin talks to end four decades of hot and cold war with Israel.

Scud-missile lesson

The defeat of its most feared regional enemy gave Israel the confidence to go along. Repeated attacks by Iraqi Scud missiles during the war also convinced Israel that negotiation, not territory, was the key to security for the Jewish state.

''We have learned in the modern age, geography cannot guarantee security,'' Mr. Bush affirmed in his 1991 address to Congress.

Despite the progress achieved since the Arab-Israeli peace process began, a large gap remains between diplomatic and public acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

''Israel is seen as very secular and Western. And because it's richer and has the backing of the West, Arab states fear it will dominate the region,'' says Quandt, who played a major role in negotiating the 1977 Camp David treaty between Israel and Egypt.

''They see it as an opening wedge for the Israelization of a Middle East in which they're going to be marginalized.''

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