Down with Saddam -- up with Palestine

America should force the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace. But even if it doesn't, war with Iraq is justified and necessary.

Published March 18, 2003 8:24PM (EST)

With war imminent, it is sobering to reflect upon the fact that U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been a colossal failure for decades. The crucial question, just days before an invasion is launched, is whether the Bush administration's line on Iraq represents a continuation of this failed approach or whether it is a new departure. To antiwar critics in Europe and elsewhere, it is just more of the same: more bullying, more unilateral action, more running roughshod over the interests of the people in the region in the pursuit of narrow American objectives. To the neoconservative hawks in the U.S. and elsewhere military action against Iraq represents a "paradigm shift" that will remake the Middle East and turn around the fight against terrorism.

In fact, both sides to the debate are partly right. But because of the ideologically driven partisanship that has sprung up around the issue, neither can admit it.

The Middle East is one of the most deeply troubled regions of the world. It suffers from a combination of chronic ills not seen anywhere else, except perhaps in some parts of Africa. This was detailed last year in the United Nation Development Program's Arab Human Development Report, which was compiled by academics from the region itself. While the report is enough to make people who care about the region blanch, it hardly even paints a full picture of the depths to which the Middle East has sunk. It does not address issues such as arms proliferation, the instability inherent in the regional balance of power and the increasingly fundamentalist drift of its societies. It does, however, describe how the Arab world has fallen behind dramatically since the 1960s, pointing at the abysmal literacy rates, the shockingly low participation rate of women in their societies, the lack of individual freedoms and democracy and a legion of other problems.

Why bring up last year's news? Because looking unflinchingly at the Middle East's problems offers the best rationale for the need for dramatic change. Doing nothing is not an option. Leaving the region to rot may bring more 9/11 type attacks, endanger the stability of the world oil supply and create destabilizing issues of arms proliferation, to mention just a few of the dangers. But if outsiders -- read: the U.S. -- are going to take the plunge and try to reshape the Mideast, they will have to take a two-pronged approach. They must make a long-term commitment to contributing to the development of the region along the lines mentioned in the U.N. report. And they must take steps to defuse the region's two most pressing conflicts, ones that both destabilize it and contribute to the animosity toward the West. Those conflicts are the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the standoff with Iraq.

The U.S. and other Western countries have not erred by getting too involved, as the Bush administration seems to have concluded with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but too little. Israel and the Palestinians should actually have been pressured into an agreement long before the intifada started. The parties themselves clearly did not have it in them to resolve their own problems, and they still don't. Talk of "roadmaps" is just pussyfooting around the main issue: Somebody has to tell both sides what the final deal is going to look like -- probably something along the lines of the Clinton plan -- and then force them to implement it. The same goes for Iraq: Rather than letting the situation fester during more than a decade of sanctions, with all their consequences, an activist policy should have been followed long ago, leading to the demise of Saddam Hussein. The same activist approach is needed to tackle development and democratization issues in the region. To keep supporting corrupt and dictatorial regimes, as the U.S. has done, has clearly not worked. The seeming stability of the region over the decade before 9/11 was only skin deep, as any observer of the Middle East knew, and it was bought at a terrible price, both in the region and in the U.S.

Moves towards resolving the two conflicts will not automatically improve the lot of the region. Neither Iraq nor the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is singled out in the U.N. report as being responsible for the Middle East's sad state. The area has had ample opportunity to develop and shed its bad habits, regardless of the conflicts in Israel and Iraq. It is clear, though, that those conflicts do play an important role in the dynamics that inhibit development in the Middle East. Dealing with them may help create a momentum for change on the more fundamental issues facing the region.

Ideally, military action against Saddam Hussein would be accompanied both by an initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as policies that contribute toward the development and democratization of the Arab world. There is understandably a lot of skepticism that this administration will actually take such steps. Particularly embarrassing was the gale of laughter that greeted British Foreign Minister Jack Straw's statement on the roadmap in the Commons on Monday night. Clearly even the British Parliament thinks that talk of a roadmap is just a cynical ploy to gain some last-minute support for an attack on Iraq. In any case, to tie the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iraq now may be counterproductive: The issue has to be pursued regardless of what happens in Baghdad.

It will be very hard to convince the Bush team that it will have to go against its ideological grain and get actively involved in Middle East peacemaking, development and democratization. Lacking a comprehensive policy, the problems of the region may continue to grow. The Europeans and others who are aware of this should have joined the U.S. on Iraq and then used that leverage to push the administration towards those wise policies, rather than unequivocally opposing the war.

But even in the absence of a balanced U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, action on Iraq still has to be taken. All the ifs and buts are real dangers, but the cautious, status-quo approach has totally failed and is bound to prolong and maybe even worsen the situation.

Particularly in light of the 9/11 attacks, it is neither strange nor improper that the U.S. has made resolving the Iraq situation its Middle East priority, rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While most people in the region itself, and by the looks of the recent antiwar protests those outside as well, would argue that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the more important of the two, from the '90s to 9/11 it was actually Iraq that represented the major destabilizing influence. The military containment of Iraq, as manifested in the presence of U.S. troops and sanctions, affected many more countries in the 1990s, and in a much more direct way, than the "solidarity" with the Palestinians professed by the Arab world, which is mostly intangible.

Those who argue that containment of Iraq has worked, or will continue to work, ignore the side effects that policy has had on the country itself and the entire region. The decade-long sanctions, and other aspects of containment, clearly bear a large part of the blame for poisoning Arab/Muslim-American relations. The horror stories about the humanitarian cost of sanctions, the thousands of Iraqi babies dying because of them, the destruction and humiliation of what once was the proudest Arab nation, and a plethora of other accusations aimed mainly at the U.S. worked their way into the accepted narrative of the region. Combined with the presence of American troops on Arab and even holy Islamic soil and U.S. support for regimes that many saw as at least as evil as Saddam Hussein's rounded out the charge sheet that was used by the people who planned the attacks on New York and Washington. This is the direct link between 9/11 and Iraq -- not some belabored attempt by the administration to link Saddam directly to al-Qaida.

The Palestinian intifada, which caused much anger and unrest in the surrounding countries after it broke out late in 2000, has remained basically a local issue. The 9/11 attacks, which represent the immensity of the failure of U.S. policy in the region, were planned well in advance of the start of the intifada. They involved no Palestinians; most of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, who seem to have acted more out of anger over the Iraq crisis than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, the Arab world was still unhappy with U.S. support of Israel, but the Oslo process and Clinton's visit to the Palestinian territories had at least temporarily tempered its ire. Not that before Iraq and the intifada there was no anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The Islamic clerics who swept into power in Iran in 1979 dubbed the U.S. the "Great Satan" and took the Teheran embassy personnel hostage. In 1982 the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, or a precursor, blew up the U.S. Embassy and the Marines barracks in Beirut.

To reverse the failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East, Iraq is the obvious place to start. Why that has to happen right now, after years of apparent neglect, is easy to answer. It is precisely that period of neglect that helped bring about the 9/11 attacks: to wait to remedy it would be asking for more trouble. Also, political realities must be acknowledged: the post 9/11 U.S. public support for such an action and the political timetable of the next presidential campaign made it possible for the U.S. to act. Continuing containment is just not an option: It would be a continuation of the failed policies that contributed toward 9/11. Resolution 1441 of the U.N. Security Council was clearly meant last year to start healing the festering wound that the Iraq crisis represents. There is one built-in difficulty with this process: It is no longer about disarmament, if it ever was. Of course "regime change" is the real motivation -- although the U.S. had to initially downplay this at the U.N.

No one who knows Iraq can seriously believe that disarmament can be achieved verifiably without regime change. Even a stringent, indefinite inspections system would probably not be able to reassure everybody that the country had actually disarmed. In the past inspectors have not been able to trace all hidden weapons of mass destruction. What's more -- and what makes action ever more urgent -- is that the sanctions had actually begun crumbling over the last few years. "They'll continue to crumble after this crisis," a self-confident Iraqi academic said recently. Saddam Hussein does not have to use his WMD to destabilize the region. By forcing the U.N. and the U.S. to continue containment indefinitely, he has achieved that goal.

The U.N. weapons inspectors don't see it as their job to decide between war or peace. Unless it can really not be avoided, they will never declare Iraq in clear and material breach of the U.N. resolutions. By the same token, they will never give the country a totally clean bill of health, even if that were practically possible, which it is not. It is up to the Security Council, not the weapons inspectors, to make that call. The French and Russian threat to veto any resolution allowing the use of force against the Iraqi regime means in effect that the current situation would be continued indefinitely, since the U.S. and the U.K. would never in the foreseeable future allow the council to lift the sanctions. Anyway, any scenario that leaves Saddam Hussein in place would also leave containment in place -- not least because of the request of Iraq's neighbors in the Arab Gulf. They would not like to see the U.S. pack up and leave, even if Iraq "only" kept conventional arms.

The question of whether war will actually be worse than continued containment is hard to answer. It is a horrible thing to advocate a war. Many people on all sides, but mostly in Iraq, will die or be maimed. The impact is bound to be terrible. On the other hand, the current reality is already terrible. Saddam Hussein's regime is the vilest in the region: it mistreats its own 23 million people in the worst ways imaginable. An Iraqi playwright exile in the Jordanian capital of Amman said about the antiwar protesters: "If you have not lived in the torture chamber you cannot imagine what it is like."

Moreover, there is a strong likelihood that the U.S., and/or other nations, will have to fight a war with Saddam Hussein at some point in the future: There is no indication he has changed his stripes. In that case, the suffering will only have been extended even further for nothing. In addition, Iraq may be better prepared and the toll may even be higher.

An argument commonly advanced against invading Iraq is that it will increase anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world. But it is hard to see how it could get much worse than it is now. How can groups like al-Qaida "intensify" their efforts to hit American targets? As far as anybody can tell they have never given up those plans. Fears that the war will serve as a recruiting bonanza for radical Islamist groups are legitimate, but could turn out to be overblown.

Much will depend, of course, on how "clean" and fast the war turns out to be. U.S. commanders are well aware of the importance of avoiding massive civilian casualties. Even if that happens, though, there will probably still be a reservoir of goodwill toward the Americans among the population, many of whom already talk about the impending "liberation." On the other hand, U.S. troops shouldn't overstay their welcome or become involved in local rivalries as they did in Lebanon in 1982. An extended occupation is not the type of involvement that is needed in Iraq. The country has strong centralized institutions and would benefit much more by aid and advice from a distance. If an administration has to be set up and peacekeepers are needed, it's probably better to try to involve the U.N. or third countries again.

The Germans, French, and Russians have warned that war could produce a catastrophe, but they have done little to actually find a solution to the situation. All four countries have done well economically out of the prolonged crisis. Their embassies in Baghdad, like those of most other countries represented there, always had a closer resemblance to sales offices than to diplomatic missions. While they took advantage of the absence of American competition in the country, they also profited from the relatively low oil prices that the U.S. managed to obtain as a price for its protection of the Gulf countries. Self-interest is a not unusual guide to countries' behavior and there is no reason to think it doesn't apply to all sides in this debate.

It is patently in everybody's interest to stabilize the region where the world gets most of its oil. Indeed, this goal is even more important to Europe and Asia than to the U.S. The French and the others must also have known that the U.S. and Britain would go ahead with an attack anyway and that their opposition could actually threaten their economic interests in Iraq and other countries in the U.S. orbit. But maybe they have discounted that last possibility. The involvement of the U.N. and of European countries, especially in the rebuilding of Iraq, is hugely important. The opponents of a war may think they can have it both ways: They can play at being the friends of the Arab and Muslim world while being reasonably confident that they will be invited back in by the U.S. because it will not want to shoulder the responsibility of postwar administration and peacekeeping by itself.

In this respect, the remarks by European Union external affairs minister Christopher Patten are remarkable. He recently stated that the E.U. might not help Iraq rebuild after a war. First of all, this punishes Iraq for what some E.U. countries see as American misdeeds. Secondly, it betrays a worrying desire to see the U.S. actually fail and bury itself in the Middle East. Such an attitude would be enormously harmful, not only to the U.S. but also to the region and to the E.U. itself. Even though it doesn't look like it at the moment, Europe and the U.S. share many common interests in the Middle East. All want to safeguard the stable supply of oil, all want to counter fundamentalism and all want to stabilize the region in general. What's more, it would not help the E.U. either to see the U.S. provoked or destabilized in any way, either by more 9/11 type attacks or by fanning the flames of anti-Americanism.

It's really quite artificial to distinguish between anti-Americanism and anti-Western feelings in general. The attitudes in the Middle East toward the U.S. and the rest of the West are inescapably bound up with the deep problems affecting the societies in the region, the way they have fallen behind and the way they are reacting to that. That is not to deny that America's actions and words have also contributed to the animosity with which it is regarded these days by many Arabs and Muslims. In the end, though, the problem is bigger than just anti-Americanism. The West will simply have to deal with the problems in the Middle East at some point. And the answer is more involvement rather than less, even if that leads to another rise in anti-Western and anti-American feelings. It may sound crude and paternalistic, but the Middle East, including Israel, will have to be helped whether its people like it or not.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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Al-qaida Iraq Middle East National Security