Saddam Hussein has thrown another roadblock in front of UN weapons inspectors. US officials are talking about a military strike, and some Americans say Saddam only understands force.
But most Arabs - even Kuwaitis - don't support a military response. It's not that they've suddenly decided they like or trust Saddam. Americans and Arabs alike would like to see him disappear. But there are fundamentally different perceptions between Americans and Arabs about Iraq, and about most Middle Eastern issues. These differences will bedevil our Iraq policy until we take them into account.
At a recent press conference, Defense Secretary William Cohen released a detailed report on chemical and biological weapons that pointed at Iraq as a serious threat to the world.
At the same time, Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, was telling the Arab press that the Persian Gulf is now safe. One of the Arab world's most respected leaders, Sheikh Zayid reflected widespread Arab opinion when he said while Saddam had been a threat in 1990-91, the situation has changed, and the only people suffering today are the Iraqi people.
At the heart of the American-Arab disagreement is a widespread Arab belief that the US is insisting on continued sanctions because it wants to destroy Iraq and it doesn't mind harming the Iraqi people in the process.
US officials vehemently deny that sanctions are aimed at harming the Iraqi people, saying they are intended to persuade the Iraqi regime to change its behavior, and it is Saddam who is responsible for the people's suffering. He could end their misery if only he complied with the UN resolutions. Food and medicine were always exempted from the ban on imports into Iraq, they say, but Saddam diverted these goods to his cronies and available resources to building palaces.
After Desert Storm, Americans assumed the Iraqi regime would change its ways. American officials believed Saddam could not hold out indefinitely, and that the continued pressure of sanctions and international controls would bring about a change in his behavior, or another reasonable leader would replace him. That, of course, didn't happen.
Americans tend to consider the current threat serious and imminent. The US maintains a large military presence in the Gulf and is willing to use force. But the Arab states believe Iraq is weak and not a threat to anyone. They think a military strike would only help Saddam politically.
The Israel factor exacerbates Arabs' dissatisfaction with US policy. They're convinced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to halt all progress on the Oslo peace accords, and they're critical of Washington for not putting pressure on him to move forward. Most Arabs believe the US has a double standard in the Middle East, seeking to punish Iraq for violating or ignoring UN resolutions while letting Israel get away with what they see as failure to implement other UN resolutions.
Arabs increasingly suspect, too, that the US is motivated by anti-Arab racism. They cite the ongoing American-led confrontation with Libya over Lockerbie and the recent US imposition of new sanctions on the Sudan.
Americans and Arabs have very different priorities. The Arab focus is on Palestine, while the American focus is on Iraq. Why? Americans have for years seen Israel as a potential victim of Arab aggression and terrorism, while Arabs see Palestinians as the victim of Israeli aggression. Americans seem to believe the two sides are just going through one more of many rounds of endless bickering. They're uninterested in the complex details of the conflict, tired of the mutual recriminations, and don't feel strongly about who's right or wrong.
But, to Americans, the situation in Iraq is different. They still remember sending soldiers to the Gulf, and they see Saddam continually defying Washington. They're easily convinced, therefore, that his recent confrontation over weapons inspections constitutes an urgent crisis.
THE US should reassess its Iraq policy, making clear what Iraq must do to get sanctions lifted, and what US policy toward Iraq would be after that. The US should consult more closely with its allies and seek new ways to help provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people. It also should seek ways to divide Saddam from his civilian and military elite, the only people capable of removing him. Finally, Americans need to learn more about the people of the Arab world - what motivates them, and why their thinking on such issues has become so different from the American point of view.
* William A. Rugh, a former career Foreign Service officer, is president of AMIDEAST in Washington.