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SADDAM'S INSTANT LEGACY : With All The Talk About War And No-War, No One Is Thinking About The Unprecedented Dangers In A Post-Crisis Middle East.

October 21, 1990|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, national-security correspondent for The Times, has a research grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She is the author of "In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade" (Simon & Schuster)

WASHINGTON — Whatever the denouement of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--through war or diplomacy, confrontation or compromise--the political map of the Middle East is almost certain to be redrawn, and many of the region's key issues redefined. In the first three months of the standoff in the desert sands, traditional alliances have already been ruptured, political statuses reversed and economies devastated. The long-term fallout of the Persian Gulf crisis, however, includes some unprecedented dangers lost sight of in the obsessive debate over war or no-war.

Four key issues offer a sampling of the "unexplored realities," the possible byproducts and potential political flash points in the Middle East, post-crisis: the future of Iraq, the political costs for Saudi Arabia, the state of Arab unity and the status of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

First, what happens to Iraq after it's all over? None of the potential outcomes is very hopeful.

If diplomacy resolves the conflict and Baghdad withdraws from Kuwait:

--Saddam Hussein is still in power.

--He still has his deadly arsenal.

--Iraq still has a million men under arms.

--And Baghdad is still a threat to the gulf.

Under these circumstances, talk of a regional security alliance to keep Baghdad in check is an illusion. The world simply can't afford to pay for the kind of force now in the Persian Gulf, or anything resembling it, on an indefinite basis. Nor is there any truly regional alliance that could counter Iraq, unless maybe Iran and Israel were included, a very unlikely possibility.

Speculative talk of renewed impetus behind an international ban on chemical weapons or beefing up the biological treaty to make it viable is also an illusion. All the factors that originally led various countries in the Middle East to acquire these weapons are still in play. That's unacceptable.

Another alternative is taking out Iraq's arsenal and defanging the world's fourth largest army in a military confrontation. But again, Hussein is still around. More important, so is "Saddamism," the magnetic appeal of a strongman who promises to unite the Arabs, address their problems and confront their enemies. A military setback might keep him in check, particularly in light of his heavily indebted economy and his recent humiliating concessions to Iran that left Tehran the de facto winner of their eight-year gulf war. But the political undercurrents of Saddamism would still be one of the most disruptive forces in the region.

Even a massive economic and diplomatic offensive to eliminate the flash points that have made Saddamism so popular among frustrated Palestinians, Jordanians and others could backfire. That offensive involves the superpowers moving to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute over a Palestinian homeland. It also involves the gulf states injecting billions of dollars into the poorer Arab nations to counter criticism that Arab oil wealth was being provided to the West on a preferential basis.

With some justification, Hussein would claim credit for creating a catalyst for both initiatives. So that's unacceptable.

The third scenario is a military conflict that includes the elimination of Hussein's regime--either physically or politically--and its military machine. But then what happens to Iraq?

Most of the alternatives from the Baath Party, the Revolutionary Command Council or the military are likely to do little to end the "regime of fear." A new leadership in Baghdad from these quarters would be unlikely to encourage or implement moves toward democracy. Hussein's legend might even survive. Secondly, since opposition either at home or in exile has a limited power base, at best, any others are political wild cards. In a vacuum, long-standing divisions among Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds could resurface and create friction.

The short-term danger of uncertainty, instability, even chaos in one of the gulf's most important, most populous, most literate and most oil-rich nations is very high. That's also unacceptable.

Another unexplored reality is the future of Saudi Arabia when the crisis is over. All the sheikdoms face some tough issues.

The first is military. The crisis has shown that all that oil money can't buy might. Saudi Arabia may have the title "Guardian of Islam," but it is in no position to guard anything. Just as it had to bring in foreign troops when it faced an internal threat--regaining control of the Grand Mosque seized by Sunni extremists in 1979--the House of Saud was also forced to rely on others' might to protect it against an external threat this time around. The royal family is equally unlikely to be able to guard itself or the region's Islamic landmarks for the foreseeable future.

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