Posted on March 10, 2003 in Washington Watch

The United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan did the right thing by publicly calling on Saddam Hussein to resign and go into exile. On at least three significant counts, he was right.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge, that the awful regime in Baghdad has lost any claim to legitimacy. It has been extraordinarily brutal and repressive. It has a history of reckless adventurism and it has squandered its nation’s human and natural resources. The consequences of this behavior have been tragic. The Iraqi people have paid a terrible price, as have the Kuwaitis and others as well.

In fact, to understand how disastrous this regime has been, one need only imagine what Iraq, and the region as a whole, might have become had the qualities, intelligence and wealth of the Iraqi people been directed by a wiser leadership. Given the record of this group in Baghdad, it should be delegitimized and ostracized. They should go. And contrary to the charges of the Iraqi spokespersons, calling on this regime to step aside is not a traitorous and cowardly act, in reality, it represents the best of Arab patriotism.

A second reason why Sheikh Zayed was right to issue his proposal is that this question of Iraq should be an Arab responsibility. This is not a matter for the United States or Great Britain. Their involvement has no foundation in international law and can only create greater regional instability.

The people of Iraq need a message of support and hope from the broader Arab world. The regime has brutally crushed its opponents and has killed even those it merely imagines to be its opponents. And now it is, once again, playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship that places the lives of its people at risk.

Recent efforts at western intervention have proved disastrous for the people of Iraq. The U.S. and others cruelly played both sides of the Iran-Iraq war. And the post-Gulf War sanctions program was devastating to the people of the country. The impact of sanctions has been to allow the regime to control vastly diminished wealth, which it has used to consolidate its power at the expense of the majority of the Iraqi people.

The Iraqis need to know that the Arab world cares about their future and will work with them to reconstruct their country, preserve its sovereignty and integrity, and help it be restored to its regional leadership role.

Finally, Sheikh Zayed was right to issue to this challenge as a last ditch attempt to stave off a devastating war that will have terrible consequences in human life and regional stability. The neo-imperial goals of the architects of this imminent war pose a great danger to the region. The consequences of the unilateral war being pressed by the Bush Administration will have a negative impact on US relations with the Arab world. It may harm our allies, inflame public sentiment in some quarters, put our interests at risk and further compromise our values. The American people have not been told a simple truth which is that, in the eyes of most Arabs, America lacks the legitimacy and moral authority to impose itself on Iraq. As a result of our unbalanced policies, we are not viewed as liberators who will bring democracy and freedom.

By seeking a broad Arab consensus to delegitimize the Iraqi regime, to pressure it to quit, to empower the Iraqi people and to pledge Arab and United Nations support to rebuild, Sheikh Zayed’s proposal offers an alternative to a war that must be avoided.

***

I listened last week to both the speech delivered by President George W. Bush and the interview given by Saddam Hussein to American television. It is clear that both are on a collision course.

The closer we get to this war the more Bush displays a calm religious certainty. He has become theologian-in-chief, a leader on a mission–with no attention given to details or consequences.

Saddam, almost eerily serene, appeared disconnected from history and current realities. He is still claiming that Iraq was not defeated in 1991, that he was elected by 100 percent of all the Iraqi people, and that he, by his actions, is defending Arab honor and greatness. It was, to say the least, a maddening performance.

Should the war occur, there is no doubt that American military might will prevail. But then what? Neither Bush’s certainty nor Saddam’s bluster will be a factor in shaping the final outcome. Unpredictable forces will be unleashed, bringing unforeseen consequences.

That is why Sheikh Zayed was right to call on Saddam to step down and the Arabs to assume responsibility, all in an effort to stop this war.

***

It was in January of 1991, the day before the last war with Iraq was about to begin. I led a small group of Arab Americans to a sit-in demonstration in front of the Iraqi Embassy. We delivered an appeal to the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait–to spare their people, their country and the region. Was it blindness to reality, arrogance and stupidity, or mindless bullheaded brinkmanship that caused them to stay? Can anyone who claims to be a leader care so little for his own people and country that he would invite disaster, and then, when that disaster is about to occur welcome it and boast about it?

And so in 1991 we appealed to the regime to leave Kuwait. They did not. Their country was subjected to a devastating attack that destroyed much of its infrastructure. Their army was decimated in the “mother of all battles” and was forced to leave Kuwait in humiliation, while being subjected to a carpet bombing that cost the lives of thousands. The human and material costs continued to mount during the decade that followed.

And still the regime boasts and plays out its deadly games. No lessons were learned, no change in course.

That is why, I believe, Sheikh Zayed’s appeal should be heard and acted upon by more Arab States. At the end of the day, this war is about matters much larger than the brutal regime in Baghdad. It is about Iraqi people, it is about the integrity of the Arab world, and it is about the ability of Arab leadership to assume responsibility to help resolve a crisis that, if left unchecked, may have broader regional impact.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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