It was just over a decade ago, in the build up to the first Gulf War, that I became politically engaged as a student activist, wrote my first published articles and began a series of regular radio broadcasts. As American bombs once again rain down on the cradle of civilization, I suppose it is appropriate to launch this weekly column, which will often range far beyond Arab-American and Middle Eastern themes, by returning to the issue that got me started in the first place.
Of course, this is not your daddy’s Gulf War. The unprecedented domestic and international opposition is driven by concerns about the devastation that it is likely to bring to the long-suffering Iraqi people, and well-founded fears that it is an entirely avoidable conflict which will create many more problems than it solves.
People around the world understand that fundamentally this is motivated by the strategic goal of consolidating American domination of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Can anyone really believe that this would be happening if the principal export of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was dates?
Polls showing majority support among the American public reflect more a conviction that no president would recklessly lead the country into a dangerous war than any real sense of what is at stake. One detects a deep strain of uncertainty and anxiety lying just beneath the surface of this deference.
No such doubts can be detected from President Bush, who has consistently presented a blase, almost nonchalant, attitude in launching the most ambitious American adventure since Vietnam. What is truly shocking are not the usual distortions, untruths and juggled rationalizations. The deeper scandal is the refusal of the President and his advisers to acknowledge the profound risks and costs this war entails.
When the dust settles, the good news will be that Saddam Hussein is gone for good. As for the bad news, well, the parade of potential horribles is almost too ghastly to contemplate.
This war had already claimed several victims before a shot has been fired. The U.N. Charter, for one, has been badly wounded. It is to be expected that small and marginal powers, with ambitions and grievances which are not accounted for in the system of international law, will at times behave without regard to that system. But when the world’s greatest power, the principal architect and arbiter in the system, offhandedly casts it aside, then there is no law and no order.
Another early casualty is American diplomacy. The Bush Administration has succeeded in creating a united block of second-tier states, led by France, determined to place limits on American power. If you want a good laugh, check out the State Department list of countries belonging to the “Coalition of the Willing.”
Most troubling is the extreme damage being done to U.S.-Arab relations, which were already in intensive care due to September 11 on the one hand, and unconditional American support for Israel in its war against the Palestinian people on the other. The increasing alienation between Arabs and Americans, fueled in both societies by outrageously irresponsible media, requires careful consideration and urgent attention.
The fiasco at the Security Council demonstrates how ill-served the President has been by his key advisers. But a far greater miscalculation has been expressed by Vice President Cheney, among others, that this war will have a calming effect on the region by demonstrating American strength and resolve. This logic, which emanates from anti-Arab polemicists like Bernard Lewis, is a slightly prettified version of “the only language these people understand is…”
Like most other official American approaches to the region, it refuses to take Arab perceptions and opinion seriously. But, like it or not, most Arabs will probably regard the war as a rather crude form of imperialism, if not a highly sophisticated burglary, and be outraged, rather than awed and subdued by a spectacle of global discipline.
An American occupation of Iraq, dovetailing with the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, could not be better designed to lend a sudden and undeserved credibility to hysterical and paranoid rhetoric about a generalized attack on Arabs and Muslims by “Crusaders and Jews.” Al-Qaeda, which by rights should be on the road to a well-deserved extinction, is about to be given a perfect platform for winning support and recruits.
To be sure, the big loser in all of this certainly will be Saddam Hussein. But the big winner is unlikely to be President Bush, and certainly will not be the American people. Nor, in all probability, will it be the Iraqi people, at last rid of a foul tyrant only to find themselves living under the rule of a foreign army.
Given the nature, timing and perceptions of this war, the big winner, in all dreadful likelihood, will be…Osama bin Laden.