The international crisis over Iraq has changed drastically in just two weeks. After months of talk of unilateral American action against the government of Saddam Hussein, including a possible war to dislodge it from power, President Bush, in an important speech, took the issue to the United Nations. Within days, Iraq accepted the unconditional return of international arms inspectors.
Although the possibility of war with Iraq in the coming months remains high, these recent events have altered the calculations of the United States, Iraq, the Arab states and the United Nations. They have increased the chance of a broad international coalition for a possible war, in case Iraq defies international resolutions, while at the same time making such a coalition less likely if Iraq continues to cooperate.
And that has complicated matters for the Bush administration, which still wants a strong U.N. resolution holding out the threat of war, but is running into resistance from allies. Included in that group are Arab states that could be key to the U.S. ability to wage war, if it comes to that. Despite Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent statement that “moderates throughout the region would take heart” at an Iraqi “regime change,” the strategic reluctance of Arab states to support an American-led war on Iraq should not be underestimated.
Arab countries did, in the end, reportedly prod Iraq to accept inspectors, and Saudi Arabia went so far as to say it might allow the United States to use bases there to launch a war if Iraq defied the United Nations. But the reality is that the leaders of those countries remain terrified of war. Arab leaders do fear Saddam, as the Bush administration has said. But they fear even more their own people’s opposition, possible postwar chaos in Iraq and increased American power in the region.
The rapid-fire changes in the Iraq crisis started after influential GOP leaders—including former Secretary of State James Baker—urged U.N. involvement. Some congressional leaders also began pushing publicly for a multilateral approach. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan increased the pressure when he warned, just before Bush was to address the United Nations, that there is no substitute for the legitimacy bestowed by the Security Council.
Speaking only one day after the emotional anniversary of the Sept. 11 horror, the president in turn challenged the United Nations to enforce its resolutions. Although he issued no ultimatum to Iraq, he clearly laid the ground for a new U.N. resolution in the coming weeks that would give such an ultimatum, backed by the threat of force.
The president’s speech had an impact on the calculations of many members of the Security Council and others with special interest in the Iraq issue, such as the Arab states. The strongest case that the United States could make against Iraq was not that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Others in the international community have more advanced capabilities, including India, Pakistan and Israel. The difference is this: Iraq contracted to remove its weapons of mass destruction after its 1991 defeat, and was obligated to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and to implement U.N. resolutions.
By focusing this time on Baghdad’s violation of these resolutions, President Bush succeeded in challenging the Security Council into action. But some of the countries that eventually lent the United States support may have acted not because the president convinced them Saddam was an immediate threat, but because they were frightened by the prospect of a unilateral American military campaign without the cover of international legitimacy.
While the United States stands to lose much international support if it acts alone, the authority of the United Nations would also be severely undermined.
In the days that followed President Bush’s U.N. speech, the pressure on Iraq to accept the return of inspectors without delay mounted. Security Council members, such as France and Russia, which had been urging multilateral action to end the crisis, found it harder to resist introducing a new tough resolution that could lay the ground for possible war with Iraq. And Arab leaders, who had been universally opposed to a unilateral American campaign against Iraq, also felt they could not resist U.N.-mandated action. These changed positions, coupled with extensive diplomatic efforts to persuade Iraq to readmit inspectors quickly, may have convinced the government of Saddam Hussein that the tide was shifting.
Saddam then, last week, said the inspectors could come back unconditionally, and the surprise move led to almost immediate squabbling between America and its allies about whether any new resolutions were needed.
Regardless of the outcome of that debate in the coming weeks, it is important to understand that opposition in the Middle East to war with Iraq—whether U.N.-sanctioned or not—is widespread and is based on strategic and political calculations. Arab leaders worry above all about the possible disintegration of Iraq, or continued instability emanating from Iraq, and they do not find American assurances to the contrary credible. They see the task of maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and preventing meddling by regional rivals as potentially overwhelming.
While most in Iraq may be happy to rid themselves of Saddam, others may not; no ruler governs alone, and many in the state’s extensive power structure and the factions associated with them will be fearful if the government falls. The prospect of revenge by repressed segments of society will be high, and the factionalism that characterizes Iraqi society will most likely be accentuated.
The Kurds in the north will push for maximum autonomy, and the prospect of a Kurdish state would concern Turkey, which has its own large Kurdish population. The majority of Iraq’s Shiites, meanwhile, would want friendly religious and cultural ties with Iran. That could clash with U.S. objectives of confronting Iran and add to Iraq’s instability.
But Arab leaders’ worries don’t stop there. They also fear a sustained U.S. presence meant to prevent such chaos. If the United States commits to the deployment of the necessary military, political and economic resources to assure Iraq’s stability, many of Iraq’s neighbors, and others in the region, fear a possible American military and political dominance that would then include Iraq in a way that alters the strategic picture to their disadvantage.
Governments in the region generally favor preventing Iraq from becoming a nuclear power, especially under Saddam. Even gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates that fear Iran more than they fear Iraq and worry about weakening Iraq too much, support measures to limit Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, including reinstating international monitors. But some of those same states also worry about overwhelming American power in the region (and in Syria’s case, Israeli strategic dominance).
One of the biggest reasons for regional reluctance to support an American military effort to topple Iraq’s government is concern for public opinion. Although states in the region remain very powerful in their domestic control, no state can fully ignore public sentiment in the era of the information revolution. What is the public sentiment in Arab countries?
First, most people don’t understand that U.N. resolutions are the basis of the policy to prevent Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, so they see that policy as an American strategy intended to prevent only Arab states from acquiring such weapons.
Second, those who understand the role of U.N. resolutions raise questions about “double standards” in applying them, always with examples from the Arab-Israeli conflict. And they ask, in any case, why it is that the United States, not the United Nations, should make the ultimate decision authorizing a war.
Third, while some almost wish for an Arab country to have a nuclear deterrent, even if it is possessed by Saddam, most don’t believe that it is likely. They see Iraq to be helpless, and see the entire focus on this issue as tactical, intended to justify America’s desire to keep Iraq in a box, or to justify a possible war on it. This view has intensified in recent months, with the public in the region increasingly resentful of American policy, and seeing the United States as dominating the decisions at the United Nations.
Fourth, there is continued empathy with the suffering of Iraq’s population and a prevailing assumption that U.N. sanctions, not the Iraqi government, are to blame.
Ultimately, most states in the region do not see Iraq as currently posing a serious enough threat to them to warrant a war that could significantly alter the regional environment and present them with hard choices internally and externally. Certainly not all of Iraq’s neighbors have the same calculations, and the interests of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates—are different from those of Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Iran. And there are differences even within the GCC.
Most Arab states, however, see U.S. policy on this issue as being driven by domestic politics, or by strategic designs to consolidate American dominance or secure Israeli interests. The real issue is whether they have to accommodate the United States, because opposing U.S. actions could leave them at a disadvantage if war becomes inevitable. They expect the United States would inevitably score a military victory, and no one wants to be on the losing side.
Even if some Arab states ultimately decide that joining forces with the United States is in their best interest—despite the risks—we should have no illusions: Most states and publics in the region dread the prospect of war. If it is waged, they prefer that it has international cover, but they prefer that it not be waged at all.