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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON IRAQ

Think of Iraqis, Not Saddam

The Arab world's displeasure with Baghdad won't stop an anti-U.S. backlash if bombs kill civilians.

November 13, 1998|JAMES J. ZOGBY | James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington

The Arab world is weary from the on-again off-again confrontation with Iraq.

Seven long years of economic sanctions and the butchery of Baghdad's unreformed military regime have resulted in terrible hardships for the people of Iraq. A once-prosperous people, Iraqis are today reduced to near-primitive living standards. Who can make sense of the mind-numbing infant mortality and child starvation rates reported annually by the United Nations?

Profound agony for the people, however, collides with a deep antipathy for the ruthless gang ruling the country. Their crimes are legendary and their unique brand of confrontation politics has become infuriating.

Arab leaders are stuck in a no-win situation. Their fear of the Iraqi regime's potential for mischief is balanced by their concern for the suffering of Iraq's people. What confounds this exasperation of the Arab world leaders is the ability of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to periodically jerk the United States into potentially devastating and destabilizing confrontations.

U.S. mobilization to confront the Iraqi refusal to comply with U.N. weapons inspections has become a seasonal affair. Every six months or so, Iraq balks, U.S. officials rush to Arab capitals to solicit support, the U.S. rushes weapons and troops into the region and the entire area holds its collective breath, hoping to find a way to prevent hostilities that are only seen to aggravate anti-U.S. sentiment and the suffering of the people of Iraq. And then at a last moment--at least in past confrontations--the Iraqi regime bends to the will of the United States and the crisis subsides.

Even more wearying than the human suffering is the penchant of the Iraqis for brinkmanship and the apparent pointlessness of it all. Arabs understand the danger of the Iraqi regime, but they have yet to see any coherent strategy to change that reality. Arab leaders ask whether a U.S. bombing of Baghdad for a week or more would bring Saddam Hussein into line or whether such massive destruction resulting from these attacks would only create more hardship for Iraq's people while at the same time inciting Arab public opinion.

In the nearly seven years since the end of the Gulf War, the United States, undoubtedly the world's only remaining superpower, has failed to project a clear plan to make positive changes in Iraq. Not only that, but the United States' exceptional leniency toward Israel's violations of international law and human rights have provoked Arab-wide charges of a U.S. double standard. This has undercut the United States' credibility in the Arab world.

So it is that in the face of this quandary and weariness that eight Arab states (the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Egypt and Syria) on Thursday issued a declaration in which they stated their strong preference for a negotiated settlement to this dangerous crisis.

At the same time, they made clear to the Iraqi leadership that should hostilities occur, it would be Baghdad's fault since it has refused to comply with U.N. weapons inspections.

This statement, while clearly unsympathetic with the posturing of the Iraqi regime, can hardly be construed as a ringing endorsement for the U.S. position. The statement rather reflects the weariness and wariness of Arab leaders to this most frustrating of circumstances.

So far, so good. But Iraqi civilian casualties and massive destruction to the country's infrastructure from a bombing attack would most probably cause an anti-U.S. backlash in Arab public opinion. At that point, all bets are off.

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