November 16, 1997
From our observatory post we can see that all the signs once again point to Baghdad, Iraq. The logic of the present situation and the way the debate has been framed lead to a potential military intervention. If so it will most probably be a unilateral military action by the United States or by a disguised "multilateral" force composed of 99 Americans and American fire power for every one British pilot and plane. This time, no other ally wants willingly to join the hunt for Saddam Hussein, the unpalatable, ruthless and unquestionably dangerous dictator who happens to be a master poker player. So, be prepared to turn on your TV sets and watch CNN for the latest "Baghdad live show time". At the same time feel free to turn your anger against China, Egypt, France, Germany, Russia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and all the Middle East states (with the lone exception of Israel), Turkey and countless other countries that consider such an intervention counterproductive and bound for failure in regard to both the official goals of that particular mission--enforcing the will of the United Nations--and the hidden agenda which is the hope to remove Saddam Hussein from power, dead or alive (preferably dead). You may also want to know that the odds strongly favor the views of those countries. They may be portrayed as self-serving (France, Russia) or ungrateful (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) nations in our media and other corridors of power but chances are that Saddam Hussein will outlive the military blow, and the will of the United Nations will further wither away from its originally ill-defined goals.
How did we end up in such a predicament, in this "nightmare scenario" as President Clinton has called the present situation? What lessons can be learned? And where do we go from here?
First, the tools chosen by the international community under the leadership of the United States to bring Iraq to full compliance with the various UN resolutions, namely a complete trade and financial embargo as well as diplomatic isolation, have not brought the expected results which were in short, the replacement of the Iraqi leader by a more moderate individual and the destruction of all existing weapons of mass destruction as well as any capacity to create chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. But those very tools have had some unexpected and devastating consequences for the Iraqi people. Thousands of children die each month from lack of food and medicine and close to one fourth of the population lives in total poverty. The official line to explain these dramatic living conditions and justify the ongoing crippling sanctions--the constant refusal of the Iraqi regime to fully comply with all the UN resolutions--is largely discredited in most parts of the world. As logical a rationalization as it looks the fact remains that the sanctions have created havoc in the population. To describe the desire of countries like France and Russia to loosen the sanctions as purely motivated by commercial interests may satisfy the moralizing legions of newspaper columnists and politicians in the United States but it fails to recognize these harrowing circumstances. Saddam Hussein is still in power. Iraq has yet to fully comply with the UN resolutions. And 5,000 children die each month.
Second, there is a deep resentment in the Middle East toward the United States for its inability to see the Israeli-Palestinian peace process move forward. Correctly or not, there is not one Arab regime that believes that the US government pursues an even-handed policy in favor of peace. These governments overwhelmingly consider that America has always, with one exception (the 1956 Suez Canal crisis), sided with Israel. The quid pro quo reached by the Bush administration in 1991--help us against Iraq and we will bring Israel to the peace table and broker a peace treaty--has been ignored if not forgotten by the Clinton team. Trust runs thin in the Arab capitals.
Third, there seems to be a growing uneasiness and resistance on the part of Western allies and others to go ahead with American demands of toughness against Iraq. American handling of the United Nations, some would say bullying, is increasingly viewed with suspicion. There is a sense that Washington uses the UN for its own purposes and self-interests. And there is total dismay at the fact that the US government keeps refusing to pay its dues and reneging on more than $1 billion in back dues. The US policy of engagement toward China, with its billions of commercial contracts, only reinforces the feelings that the US has a double-standard when it comes to so-called righteous moralizing decisions. Last but not least, a pernicious sentiment is spreading around the world that the US, as the only super-power on the block since the fall of the Soviet Union, tends to impose its views, not by persuasion, but by repeated threats of sanctions and asinine laws (e.g., the Helms-Burton Act or the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act).
Finally, the Iraqi regime has time and again taken advantage of these various factors in order to soften the resolve of the Gulf War coalition, draw a wedge among the Western allies and portray itself to its Arab neighbors as a victim of an unjust destruction of its infrastructure and starvation of its people. In electing to risk another military strike for ejecting the American inspectors and threatening to shoot at the American U-2 spy planes, Saddam Hussein and his advisors have taken a calculated gamble: That the US will act unilaterally against the will of the rest of the world, that damages in infrastructure and Iraqi lives will be substantial but that the regime will survive the blow. This will drive the last nail in the coffin of the coalition, destabilize moderate Arab regimes, bury the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process for another decade and eventually lift most of the economic sanctions.
In other words, President Clinton's "nightmare scenario" could well become a fact of life.
(In Part II we will examine what can be learned from this fiasco)