BAGHDAD — "We are warriors, not servants," one Iraqi said to me by way of explaining the imported Egyptians waiting on our table at the elegant Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. To claim the role that they seek in the region, the Iraqis must now demonstrate that they are also diplomats.
Having concluded an eight-year war with Iran, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz says, "We now wish to join Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in creating a stable peace in the region." And, he adds, this elusive objective can be achieved in this century.
It is not for nothing, a cynic hearing statements like this might say, that Baghdad was the home of the legendary fabulist, Scheherazade. Because, before joining any new league of moderate Middle Eastern nations, Iraq has its work cut out for it to prove its good intentions.
In the long term the Iraqis must demonstrate their diplomatic skills by negotiating a peace treaty with the intransigent Iranians that would guarantee the Iraqis access to its vital seaport at Shattal-Arab as well as the up-river channel to the inland port of Basra. Even while doing this, Iraq must convince its neighbors as well as the wider world community that it wants to be a constructive and mediating force, granting as well as receiving concessions.
This will take some doing, given the Iraqis' short-term diplomatic challenge--to convince the world that they are telling the truth when they claim that they did not use chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq. The U.S. government claims a collection of intelligence indisputable enough to have sent Secretary of State George P. Shultz into a rage about the matter. The problem is that when the houses of Congress decided to express their rage in more concrete form--economic sanctions--the same Shultz and his Administration sent emissaries to Capitol Hill saying, please don't do that. Fairly standard contradictory performance for the Reagan years.
The real question is whether, with the exception of our relations with Israel, we can afford these "tilts" in this region, particularly now that the world is no longer simply an arena for a wrestling match between the Americans and the Soviets.
Dealing with a radical regime like Iran's, especially in the silly way in which the Reagan Administration tried to do it, at the expense of improved relations with its neighbors, simply makes no sense any more.
We may not like Iraq, but we'd better be prepared to deal with it, if for no other reason than to test whether it is prepared to lay down its traditional warrior's shield and join peaceful nations at the negotiating table.
Nevertheless, by dragging their feet on immediate international inspection of the areas and populations where the poison gas is said to have been used, the Iraqis lose badly on this one. Even if now they admit a U.N. inspection team, too much time has passed--time for gas to disperse and bodies to be buried--and the Iraqi warrior reputation, an occasionally cruel one at that, continues to dominate the newly sought role of moderate diplomat.
Beyond even the issues of poison gas and territorial waterways there lies for the United States what the heavy-duty foreign-policy thinkers call geostrategy and geopolitics. Under several Presidents and during the reigns of both the shah and the ayatollah, the United States curried favor in Tehran by sending many dollars to the shah and cakes and Bibles to the ayatollah. Iran is important, the geostrategists say, because it blocks Soviet access to the Persian Gulf. To most serious people in this region, that theory represents a particularly obtuse American bipolar view of what they consider a much more complicated world and an elaborately more complicated Middle East region.