Posted on September 09, 1996 in Washington Watch

During the past week I have struggled to make sense out of the deep divergence between U.S. claims regarding its actions in Iraq and widespread Arab and Arab American perceptions about the meaning and implications of the policy behind the U.S. actions in Iraq.

We have met with and discussed the matter with White House and State Department officials and have had lengthy exchanges with Arab Americans across the country. Iraq was the topic of my weekly call-in radio and television shows, a conference call with Arab American leaders, and a leadership meeting in Washington.

Here’s what I have discovered.

The U.S. policy position justifying its actions in Iraq goes like this:

When, on August 31, Saddam sent 30,000 well-armed troops north to Irbil, it marked the largest Iraqi military mobilization in recent years. The U.S., which had been attempting to restart negotiations between the KDP and PUK, found their efforts aborted by this move. For one week, they said, warnings were sent to Iraq advising against any troop movement to intervene against Irbil. The warnings were ignored.

The feeling among U.S. policymakers was that should the Iraqi leader be allowed to use such a large military force in this instance, they felt certain that he would soon find another occasion in which to use force.

The U.S. has been concerned with the deteriorating situation in the north, the break- down in the Kurdish coalition, and the interventions by both Turkey and Iran.

At the same time since Irbil was designated as the distribution point in the north for supplies coming to Iraq as a result of U.N. Security Council Resolution 986, neither Iranian nor Iraqi control of the city was desirable. The goal of 986 was to ensure impartial and equitable distribution of food and medicine. There is concern now that the fracturing of the Kurdish community and the intervention of Tehran and Baghdad into the situation may impede the equitable distribution of resources called for in the plan negotiated to implement 986.

The explanation of the U.S. response to Saddam’s move to Irbil is as follows: instead of attacking Saddam’s troops in the north, they sought to respond to Saddam’s tactical move with what the U.S. describes as a strategic move in the south.

They did so to send a clear message to the Iraqi regime that his moves would not go unchallenged. The U.S. apparently ruled out an attack in the north as ill-advised because there would be too great a risk of collateral damage, including the loss of civilian lives (officials pointed out that the sites selected for attack were those that did not present the danger of collateral damage); the U.S. was cautious not to enter directly into the internal Kurdish dispute; military maneuvers in the north would have presented planners with a logistical nightmare; and there was no interest in pursuing a major military confrontation. This was not to be the start of a war. It was to be a limited strike that would send a clear message. From a military point-of-view, Saddam lost his air command and communications capability and access to another 20% of Iraqi airspace. Now 60% of Iraqi airspace is designated as a no-fly zone.

U.S. policymakers and the President himself have repeatedly insisted that the U.S. attack has been very limited.

In a recent meeting with Arab American leaders, White House officials affirmed the desire of the Administration to see no escalation of hostilities. They also expressed a genuine interest in following through with implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 986, which they note has been increased at the suggestion of the U.S. to $4 billion annually in food for oil—but first insist that there be assurances that, given the new circumstances in Irbil, distribution will be equitable and not factionalized.

The Administration also assured Arab Americans and Iraqi Americans that the U.S. remains committed to Iraq’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. They oppose a partitioning of the country or permanent establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the north and are concerned about Turkish and Iranian intervention.

Finally, the U.S. insists that it remains committed to Iraq’s reintegration into the region, but maintains that as a prerequisite, Iraq must comply fully with all the U.N. resolutions passed in the aftermath of the Gulf War.


While some in the Arab American community support the Administration’s position, others, like many in the Arab World, have reacted vehemently. While some comments were simply unwarranted or outrageous—others, I feel, ring true and point to serious weaknesses in U.S. policy.

First and foremost, there is deep concern over the lack of balance in U.S. concern for human suffering. One cannot help but cringe at the failure of the U.S. to respond more effectively and publicly to Israel’s bombing of Lebanon or closure of the West Bank and Gaza. The continued suffering of the Iraqi people, victims of Saddam’s regime and his wars, and of sanctions against his regime, is quite painful to most Arab Americans.

The position of many Iraqi Americans is most poignant in this respect. Saddam was defeated, but Saddam still rules. Iraqi Americans still have families in Iraq and know how brutal the regime can be. And yet they feel they have been given no choice. If their families rise up to overthrow the regime they will be slain—if they do nothing they will continue to suffer. Their dilemma is clear, they do not want to see Saddam benefit and grow stronger, but they do not want to see the Iraqi people suffer. While there is broad acceptance of the fact that the sanctions policy will not and should not be lifted as long as the regime fails to comply with U.N. resolutions, there is general agreement that, at a minimum, a way must be found to go forward with 986.

Additionally there is a concern about Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and fear regarding the involvement of Iran and its designs on the region.

Finally, there is deep concern about the unilateral nature of the U.S. response and its repercussions on U.S. relations in the Arab World.

Clearly this has been a troubling week with many serious questions and no simple answers. In fact, there is some truth to be found on all sides. Yes, the U.S. strikes were limited, and yes, if you give Saddam an inch, he will take a mile.

Yes, Iraq is a sovereign country with rights to defend itself—but when Saddam has abused that right so frequently and so flagrantly one must seriously question whether or not he has the right to exercise any use of force on behalf of the Iraqi people.

Yes, yes, yes, there is a double standard and it remains a deep and open wound that affects all Arabs and Arab Americans. But as we have often noted, in the real rules of life, politics is not morality, it is power. Arab Americans will get equal treatment for their concerns when they achieve greater political power. And when the Arab World is engaged and effective it, too, is able to use its power as leverage—as the recent Arab Summit has demonstrated. Pressure from the Arab Summit and Egypt’s threat to cancel the Economic Summit were instrumental in forcing Benyamin Netanyahu’s hand across the table—continued pressure may still force further changes in internal Israeli politics. In the end the double standard is, in part, a function of the lack of organized Arab presence to assert Arab rights and concerns.

Finally, an observation about the role that domestic politics played in the Administration’s attack on Iraq. In a democracy, policy is always influenced by politics. Surely Saddam must have considered that with two months to go in the hotly contested presidential elections his actions in mobilizing 30,000 troops would not and could not have gone unanswered.

In many ways Saddam has become the “Willie Horton” of U.S. foreign policy (Willie Horton was the convicted murderer who was given an early release from prison by former Governor Michael Dukakis. After gaining his freedom he once again committed murder. In the 1988 presidential election, in an effort to portray Dukakis as “soft on crime” Republican candidate George Bush attacked his Democratic rival with television ads telling the story of Willie Horton).

For days Dole was hammering away at what he called Clinton’s weak foreign policy—attacking him for failing to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, failing to act more aggressively in Bosnia, “caving in to Saddam on 986” and being so weak that Saddam took advantage of U.S. weakness that he sent troops to Irbil.

While the White House denies that these domestic considerations played any role in their decision to act in Iraq, even Saddam’s most strident supporters must acknowledge that he, once again, foolishly miscalculated or stupidly overreached by making his move at a time when American leaders are most sensitive to public and political pressures.

But it is also important to note that even before the U.S. actions in Iraq (and despite the recent scandals involving one of the President’s advisors) Clinton’s lead in the polls was growing daily. One poll showed that the day after the Democratic convention ended Clinton had a 15% lead over Dole. It increased to 20% even before the Administration acted in Iraq. Of course, since then the lead has continued to grow. But with a large lead Clinton did not need, and analysts agree, did not want an extended risky confrontation—especially one that might provoke a dangerous adversary. But it is clear that the President could not continue to be taunted and goaded by his opponents, nor did the Administration feel that it could let Saddam’s challenge go unanswered.

What we have stressed to the White House is that there should be some lessons that we can learn from all of this. First, it is vital that the U.S. develop a more focused and coherent Iraq policy and to articulate that policy. It is also clear that the so-called “dual containment” must be reexamined. And most importantly, significant attention must be placed on how to correct the not unjustified view among many Arabs and Arab Americans that there is a double standard in U.S. policy. The persistence of this deeply troubling reality threatens U.S. interests and relations and harms our allies in the broader region.

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