Posted on January 18, 1999 in Washington Watch

The behavior of the Iraqi leadership during the past week placed in sharp focus the problem that this regime has created for the broader Arab world.

For several years now the suffering of Iraq’s people has been a central concern in Arab public opinion. The statistics on infant mortality and the malnutrition rates are staggering and deeply disturbing to the Arab world that knew Iraq in its greater days.

Anguish at this cruel fate that has befallen the people of Iraq has turned into anger at the United States and not merely because of its leadership role in maintaining the comprehensive sanctions regime that has crippled Iraq’s economy. It is the firm Arab belief that the United States practices a double standard in its application of international law, in its expression of compassion, and in its administration of justice and use of force.

Some Arab writers have suggested that the Iraqi leadership has been emboldened to challenge the United States and spew forth harsh rhetoric against Arab governments friendly to the United States because they have confused Arab public opinion’s concern for Iraq’s people with support for their regime. While this may account for part of the calculations of the Iraqi government, the critical matter of the U.S. double standard cannot be ignored.

There is Arab anger at the United States. There is a sense of frustration and betrayal. While the United States is acknowledged by several key Arab states as the world superpower that plays a necessary role in protecting regional security, the United States’ failure to deal equitably with Arab needs has, at times, proved politically costly to its Arab allies. And it is against this background that the Iraqi leadership plays its provocative game of manipulating public anger.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker understood this fact all too well. In 1990, shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Baker attempted to analyze the reaction of some segments of Arab society to this cruel act. Baker suggested that the Iraqi leader portrayed himself as the “champion of the downtrodden” the one who would challenge the powers that be in the name of those who are oppressed. Both characterizations are, of course, misguided, since the Iraqi regime is, itself, oppressive. But, given the reality of Arab alienation from the West, the regime in Baghdad has been cruelly able to manipulate two popular themes–public support for the suffering of its own people and this profound sense of Arab alienation–into a political weapon that it has used against its enemies in times of stress.

The Iraqi regime has continually been advised that its needs would be best served by complying with international inspections and, then complaining about whatever problems it has with these inspections. Instead it has chosen an alternative path and that is to engage in a long drawn out and irksome “cat and mouse” game with the inspection regime and then play confrontation politics with those whose support the regime should be seeking to win.

Throughout this long saga it is the Iraqi people who have been the victims and it is the emotions and passions of Arab public opinion that have been played upon and worn down to the bone.

In the current situation, Arab states that are allied with the United States are posed with a disturbing dilemma. On one hand they are deeply troubled by the reckless behavior of the regime in Iraq and on the other hand they are concerned with the failure of the United States to develop a coherent and consistent policy toward not only Iraq but also the Middle East as a whole. This is especially troublesome because they recognize and value the role that the United States could play in the region.

And so it is in this context that several Arab states have begun an effort to formulate an alternative approach to dealing with the Iraq problem. They are guided by a few central objectives. They want to address and alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people. They do not want to legitimize the regime in power or reward its behavior. But cognizant of the potent political impact that the current situation is having on their public opinion, they want to separate out, to the extent that it is possible, policy directed at the regime in Iraq from the policy they will formulate to meet the needs of the people of the country.

The Arabs are not alone in this effort to arrive at such a new formula to deal with Iraq. There are currently before the United Nations at least three other somewhat similar proposals.

I have just returned from a meeting with the UN Secretary General in New York. I led a small group of Arab Americans to a discussion with Mr. Annan about a number of Middle East problems (e.g. the issue of Palestinian statehood, the danger of an escalation of Israeli attacks on Lebanon and the matter of the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan). But what occupied most of our discussion was the especially vexing problem of Iraq.

While the Secretary General is a true diplomat, what comes through clearly is his disappointment at the persistence of this disturbing situation. So much has been invested in the Secretary General’s role. But he can only do what member states allow him the latitude to do. He has vision and moral authority–but he can neither impose his will nor can he change behavior.

The Secretary General informed us of the outlines of the French, Russian and U.S. proposals to deal with the Iraqi situation. The details of an Arab position are still being formed. It appears that while there are some substantial differences in all of these various proposals, there are some points of agreement as well.

He assumed that it would still require a few more weeks of discussion and distillation before these various approaches could be shaped into a new international consensus. It will in the end require “creativity, compromise and flexibility” from all parties for such a new approach to form. But while we wait to see if such a consensus can be found and if the Iraqi government will accept a new approach, it is the Iraqi people who will continue to suffer and be exploited–still waiting for an end to their long nightmare.

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