It also seems likely that in a few months frictions over culture and customs may arise between American GIs and the Saudis. One does not have to be unduly pessimistic to anticipate the difficulties that sandstorms in January, the observance of the Ramadan fast in March, the pilgrimage to Mecca called “the hajj” in June, and the advent of the sacred month of Muharram in July will make in the lives of our deployed forces. Throughout the Middle East most Muslims instinctively resent the presence of an infidel army in the country recognized as the protector of Holy Places.
Finally, by far the most damaging aspect of the US position is the hypocrisy the Arabs perceive in America’s complaisant attitude toward Israel and its favoritism of that country over other Middle Eastern states.
Although the administration repeatedly denies that there is any parallel between Iraq’s overrunning of Kuwait and Israel’s occupation and progressive absorption not only of the West Bank and Gaza but also of East Jerusalem, few other governments agree. Successive American administrations have defended their position by contending that Israel’s occupation of lands which contain one and a half million Palestinians was not an act of aggression but merely a defensive operation during the 1967 War when Israel was willfully attacked by Arab forces. But the US has undermined its own position by saying both that it supports the UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal and that it wants a negotiated settlement, while at the same time failing to bring any serious pressure to bear on Israel to move toward either goal.
Since as a private citizen I am no longer privy to American intelligence findings, I cannot independently appraise the administration’s repeated assertion that the blockade is already showing significant effects. Press accounts suggest that there is still an adequate supply of food, while the shortage of spare parts now beginning to appear can no doubt be at least partially offset by cannibalizing existing machines. I am also skeptical that we will be able to maintain the blockade as broadly and for as long as many would like.
Our efforts to deny food imports to Iraq and Kuwait violate our reputation as a civilized people. Our actions recall the cast of mind of a feudal baron besieging a castle by starving out its defenders. Although President Bush belatedly made it clear in his October 1 speech to the United Nations that the United States will permit food shipments so long as their distribution is adequately monitored by organizations such as the Red Cross, Saddam Hussein is reportedly refusing to accord the appropriate United Nations committee the right to monitor deliveries. It seems doubtful that this deadlock can be broken without forcing some reexamination of our nation’s policy.
That, of course, is not the only problem presented by a food blockade. It seems likely that, in spite of his recent assurances, Saddam Hussein will impose more stringent restrictions on the food allotted the foreign hostages he holds than on that allotted his own people. At the same time, by blocking all but minimal rations to the emigrant workers from third world countries and even shutting off the food supplies sent by those nations to help their own citizens, our blockade of food imports could be used by Saddam Hussein to intensify the charges of inhumanity that would be made by third world countries and to deflect the charges against his own regime.
According to reports from hostages who have been released, some of the remaining American hostages have been treated by Saddam Hussein in ways that have brought them “to the end of their tether.” If he ever should display on television to the American people a picture of American hostages about to die from hunger as a result of our blockade, one could expect conflicting reactions. The friends and relatives of the hostages would likely demand an immediate change in the blockade strategy; another larger (though not necessarily politically stronger) faction might translate their feelings of grief, fury, and frustration into a demand for prompt and brutal attacks on Iraq, even though that would put the hostages in greater jeopardy.
The Resort to Offensive Military Action
What are the chances that the embargo will fail and what effect would that have on the unity of the coalition?
Of those two questions the first is the harder to answer. By studying the world’s repeated experience with economic blockades, economists can roughly measure how long it may take for an airtight blockade to reduce the level of consumption in an offending country. But no expert can predict how low an economy must sink before hardship forces a regime to make a costly political decision; there are far too many variables and too many subjective elements to consider. Experience has made clear, however, that one should never push an enemy against a locked door unless one is prepared to use all necessary force to destroy him.
Our blockade cannot be expected to produce the desired political objective unless it is accompanied by diplomacy that may provide Saddam Hussein some means of reversing course without completely losing face. Thus we might rule out the hope of gaining our objectives through economic pressures alone and yet still hope that such pressures might be effective if combined with imaginative diplomacy.
Meanwhile, we can expect that the blockade will progressively weaken. More and more members of the diverse anti-Iraq coalition may well make private deals with Iraq to purchase its oil, while, and following longstanding Middle East traditions, corrupt deals can make it possible to arrange export channels so secret and devious that they cannot be traced.
Several nations that have supplied troops have indicated with greater or less finality that, while their troops would support the blockade they would be reluctant to take part in an actual military conflict on the side of the United States against an Arab country. Some have flatly said they would not do so. How quickly the coalition might unravel would depend to a large extent on whether our coalition partners believed that Iraq’s conduct had provided a fully adequate provocation for a military attack or suspected that America, out of impatience, had contrived a factitious justification for such an attack.
The differing motives of the nation members of the coalition need closer examination than they have had so far.
Saudi Arabia’s motives are obvious; the monarch was badly shaken by fear that Iraq might seize or destroy its oil wells and other wealth and overthrow its rule. The emirates in the Gulf and sultanate of Oman almost automatically followed Saudi leadership.
In coming to Saudi Arabia’s defense, the Bush administration has repeatedly stated that if the blockade should fail to produce the required political result our forces would then launch offensive operations—even though that could do irreparable damage to the coalition.
Unless it has the full and open support from its coalition partners, which will be difficult to obtain, the US would by likely to face a “no-win” situation if it took the offensive. Should America win decisively (which is highly doubtful) most of the Arab nations would probably express or imply their shock and revulsion that a huge Western power was brutally attacking another Arab state, using its wealth and modern weaponry to kill thousands of Arabs.
If, on the other hand, our country should fail to win decisively and became enmeshed in a protracted struggle, our prestige would shrink precipitously as the Arabs assessed our impotence. We could not be sure even of Saudi support; indeed there is evidence that some influential members of the royal family are already rethinking the wisdom of their audacious move in inviting the major infidel power to intervene in their affairs. There is an apparent generational gap, with the older Saudi princes retaining their traditional suspicions of Western interference, while some of the younger princes welcome the prospective destruction of Iraq.
After all, as some of the Saudi leaders have implied, they asked us to intervene only to protect them against the Iraqis. If instead we should take offensive action they might deny us the right to launch such operations from their soil. Our limited mandate was to protect the Saudi state, not kill other Arabs.
Egypt’s motives are different. Probably the major factor in Egypt’s case is its desperate economic condition, made worse by Saddam’s action, which has deprived it of a flow of income from Egyptian nationals working in the oil fields of Iraq and Kuwait. Mubarak’s regime dare not risk its annual subsidy from America or America’s proposal to forgive $7 billion of its debts, so it must show the flag when America takes a strong position.
Mubarak would also like Egypt to regain its traditional leadership of the Arab world, and he sees Saddam Hussein as a rival. Saddam deeply embarrassed Mubarak by publicly assuring him that Iraq would not invade Kuwait, then brazenly doing so the next day.
But in spite of these motives I think it doubtful that we could expect much help from the twenty thousand Egyptian troops now being put in place or from the additional troops promised at the end of October. Some statements by Egyptian officials suggest that if the standoff should produce a shooting war, it would not participate.
Turkey’s position is more complicated. President Ozal is eager for Turkey to gain Western recognition, since he dearly hopes that his country’s application for membership in the European Community will be accepted. He still likes to think of Turkey as the bridge between the West and the Middle East, and the costs to Turkey of a blockade have seemed a reasonable price to pay in pursuit of that ambition, particularly because Ozal is counting on Turkey’s costs being repaid by the Arab oil producers. But an American-led offensive would have a chilling effect on Turkey’s current zeal.
Syria’s position reflects Hafiz al-Assad’s intense hatred of Saddam Hussein, whom he sees as his principal rival for Arab leadership. Syria supported Iran in its war against Iraq. It pursues a longstanding quasi-theological quarrel with the Iraqis over Baathist doctrine, and the distractions of the Gulf crisis provided him with the opportunity to seize virtually unchallenged control of Lebanon as a step toward the realization of a Greater Syria.
Obviously Assad would be strongly drawn to helping US efforts to bring down Saddam Hussein. Yet, since he is no longer receiving large amounts of Soviet arms, it seems highly unlikely that he would commit his armed forces to an all-out war.
Morocco has sent a small contingent which may rise in size to as many as seven thousand, but it seems clear that King Hassan regards them merely as defensive forces and would not commit them to an offensive strike at Iraq.