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How Saddam Is Dividing the Arab World

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, he cynically did so in the name of Arabism and of all “zealous Arabs who believe the Arab nation is one nation.” He justified his grab for Kuwait’s oil resources and financial assets as a means of restoring “Arab” wealth to its supposedly true owners, the entire Arab people. His Revolutionary Command Council equated any attack on Iraq with an attack on “the Arab nation.”

Once American troops landed in Saudi Arabia, Saddam coupled this appeal to pan-Arab sentiments with an appeal to Islamic ones. The American military presence on Saudi soil, he said, was a desecration of the holy places in Mecca and Medina. The tomb of the Prophet, he charged, was under the control of “unbelievers and Jews.” He sought to justify the invasion of Kuwait by appealing to resentment among poorer Arabs against the oil-rich Arab states. The Palestine issue received only passing mention in his initial post-invasion pronouncements. But faced with worldwide condemnation, he made a bid for Palestinian support as well, saying that any discussion of Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait must be linked to a prior withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza. By questioning the legitimacy of the borders drawn in the Persian Gulf by the British after World War I, Saddam implicitly called into question the legitimacy of virtually all the Middle Eastern Arab states, ironically including his own.

This combination of appeals—to pan-Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian constituencies, to the Arab poor, to Arab resentments rooted in a colonial past when Britain dominated the region—is in keeping with the style of a leader who, since he seized supreme power in Iraq a decade ago, has sought to be all things to his own people and to the Arabs in general. Huge posters throughout Iraq show Saddam Hussein in a variety of poses: as soldier, statesman, family man, Arab, Kurd, religious penitent, and humble pilgrim. For each role, he is shown in appropriate dress. Following the invasion of Kuwait, he appeared in a new guise—the flowing long shirt and headdress worn by Kuwaitis.

Saddam’s appeal to a variety of often incompatible Arab constituencies is also consistent with the confused attempt by Iraq’s Baath party over the past decade to provide a national identity for the Iraqi people.1 The party’s notion of Iraq also turns out to be something of a grab bag. The pan-Arab rhetoric which is a staple of the regime’s propaganda competes with a fierce Iraqi nationalism; the primacy Baghdad accords to the Iraqi national interest is hardly disguised. In all the talk of Arab unity, pride of place is reserved for Iraq and its leader. The Iraqis are “the pearl of the Arab’s crown, symbol of their might and pride.” Saddam is “the knight of the Arabs,” “the shield of the [Arab nation],” and “the safe haven for the Arab masses.” On the assumption that what is good for Iraq is good for the Arabs, Saddam routinely equates Iraqi with general Arab interests. His enemies, he told his Baath party members on August 7, “will be defeated and Iraq will win; they will be defeated and the Arab nation will emerge victorious.”

The emphasis on Iraq’s Arab identity fits uneasily alongside the regime’s attempt to fashion an Iraqi identity reaching all the way back to ancient Babylonia. The Baath party’s propaganda portrays modern Iraqis as the descendants of the ancient Babylonians and heirs of their glories, and Saddam Hussein as a modern-day Hammurabi. But such claims to an Arab/Babylonian identity have had to compete with the emphasis that the staunchly secular Baath began to give to Islam once Khomeini seized power in neighboring Iran. Saddam Hussein has claimed that his own ancestry can be traced to the Prophet’s grandson Husayn—a strategic choice that permits him to claim descent not only from the Prophet himself but also from the family of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, whose descendants are greatly revered by the Shi’ites.

Much of this is contrived and self-serving. Saddam Hussein appears an implausible champion of pan-Arab causes, of Islam, or of political and economic justice for the oppressed. He runs a brutally repressive regime. He is already treating his Kuwaiti “brethren” as a conquered people whose possessions can be looted and shipped to Iraq. He has most of the time pursued Iraqi national interests, not pan-Arab ones. Notwithstanding his talk of helping poor Arabs, it was Kuwait that invested $100 billion for the benefit of future generations of Kuwaitis while he squandered $100 billion or more of the resources of Iraq and of other Arab states in a barren eight-year war with Iran. That, too, was a conflict he launched for Iraqi territorial aggrandizement.

Ten years ago, Fouad Ajami published an article in Foreign Affairs called “The End of Pan-Arabism.” He wrote:

An idea that has dominated the political consciousness of modern Arabs is nearing its end, if it is not already a thing of the past. It is the myth of pan-Arabism, of the Umma Arabiyya Wahida Dhat Risala Khalida, “the one Arab nation with an immortal mission.” …Slowly and grimly, with a great deal of anguish and of outright violence, a “normal” state system is becoming a fact of life.2

Ajami argued that pan-Arabism was largely a spent force; that the Arab states, however shaky their beginnings, had proven durable; that Arabs were likely to begin feeling that their primary loyalty was to their own countries rather than to a largely unrealizable pan-Arab ideal—the dream that a common language and shared history and culture could provide the basis for a single Arab state stretching “from the Atlantic to the Gulf”; and that the policies of Arab states would be dictated by national rather than pan-Arab interests.

As the events of the last three months have shown, Ajami’s article was prescient. But these events have also stirred up old ghosts. Some Arabs at least have been drawn to the possibility that Saddam would by his actions unite and give power to the Arabs, redeem past humiliations and undo old wrongs, secure justice for the Palestinians, and bring about a more equitable sharing of Arab oil wealth. Once again Arabs are debating the nature and legitimacy of Arab regimes, the relations of these regimes with one another and the West, and the need for a reordering of the Arab world. The debate as yet lacks the intensity of the soul-searching that followed the crushing Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Ironically, it takes place at a moment when the Arab states are deeply divided. Saddam Hussein has called for the overthrow of the governments of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, and Egypt. The Kuwaiti government-in-exile is openly calling for military action against Iraq, and articles in the semi-official Egyptian press predict almost gleefully that an attack will come soon. King Hussein of Jordan and the Saudi ambassador to Washington have engaged in an acrimonious and public exchange in the pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times.3 The Palestine Liberation Organization is speaking with several voices but some of its spokesmen are trading bitter words with Egypt and the Persian Gulf Arab states. Surveying the scene, Bahi ad-Din Shuayb, a Radio Cairo commentator, remarked in August that “all the slogans about pan-Arabism, solidarity, fraternity, shared fate, and the like are nothing more than empty words that mask all sorts of hostile intentions.”4

It is not only states and their leaders that are threatening one another. Divisions are apparent between political parties within states, within Islamic movements, and among journalists, writers, academics, and intellectuals. According to Sadik al-Azm, the Syrian author and professor of philosophy at Damascus University currently with the Wissenschaftscolleg, an institute for advanced study in Berlin, the public debate reflects “the conflict within the heart of every Arab.”5 Azm observes that few Arab intellectuals have any illusions about Saddam Hussein. But, he notes, Saddam has shaken things up. He has posed issues, opened up questions. Once again, Azm implies, Arabs—he was speaking of the intellectuals—are torn between their instinctive dislike of the man and the “possibilities” of some kind of restructuring of the Arab world that he seems to provide.

Like Khomeini, Saddam Hussein draws sustenance just because he is standing up to the West. The dispatch of American troops to the Gulf appears to have touched an especially raw nerve among Arabs. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim groups that have supported President Mubarak and his anti-Saddam policy drew the line at acquiescing in the American military presence in the Gulf.

Nowhere has the support for Saddam Hussein been more visible than among Palestinians of Jordan and the West Bank. The leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization have not yet completely abandoned what was widely and accurately perceived as a tilt toward Saddam Hussein immediately after the invasion of Kuwait. But the PLO has now worked out a more tenable position. In the statements of Arafat’s spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif, it opposes the invasion and rejects the acquisition of territory by force. But it seeks to link an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait with Israel’s carrying out of the UN resolutions 242 and 338, which call for withdrawal from the occupied territories.

The PLO’s initial support for Saddam Hussein, the perception that it implicitly continues to do so, has proven costly to the organization. It confirmed the Israeli right wing in their belief that the PLO cannot be trusted. It weakened the position of the Israeli doves. Addressing local Palestinian leaders like Faisal Husseini and Sari Nuseibeh, the liberal Israeli journalist Yaron London wrote recently: “When you come back to ask for my support for your ‘legitimate rights,’ you will discover that your cries of support for Saddam have blocked up my ears.”6

The PLO leaders have also incurred the anger of the Arab coalition opposing Iraq, including the Gulf states that have financed many Palestinian activities. The Egyptian press has been scathing in its comments on Yassir Arafat. The veteran Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Basheer, who is believed close to President Mubarak, wrote that “by invading Kuwait, Saddam Hussein trapped his Palestinian friends on the wrong side of world opinion so critical to their struggle.” “Indeed,” he added, no doubt with some exaggeration, “he may have terminally marginalized them.”7

The Gulf states, led by Kuwait, have been particularly incensed that the PLO failed to condemn Saddam Hussein out-right, and that it has clouded the issue of the invasion of Kuwait by insisting on linking it with Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Writing in the London-based Saudi daily newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in September, the Saudi ambassador to Kuwait, Ghazi al-Qosaibi, described Arafat as “a sad clown,” and remarked: “We stood by him, he stood by our enemy. We sacrificed for him, he sacrificed us. We hosted him, he insulted us.”8

The Palestinians are not the only ones who view the crisis as the chance for a new deal. In capitals throughout the Arab world, there are those who are saying that however the crisis is resolved the Arab order will not be the same, and that change is both necessary and inevitable. Tahseen Basheer wrote in The Washington Times that the crisis underlines the need for “a new deal” in the Middle East allowing for “more democracy in political as well as economic life and strict adherence to human rights without double standards.”9 King Hussein of Jordan is also calling for more democracy and more equitable distribution of “Arab” wealth. According to Sadik al-Azm, some Arab intellectuals hope that the West will use the “opportunity” offered by the present crisis to insist on elections, a reinstatement of parliaments, an opening up of the political process in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states. The editor of the Cairo newspaper al-Gomhuriyya wrote in a recent article that whatever the outcome of the present crisis, the old Arab order cannot be restored, that “new relations and new alliances will be established,” and that in the postcrisis period, the Arab states must establish new, regional security arrangements to guarantee the security of the states of the region.10 These are at the moment only verbal formulas reflecting a feeling that a crisis of such proportions cannot leave things as they are. One senses in them the nervousness of leaders worrying whether a military upheaval is about to take place; and of writers and commentators hoping that long-held aspirations—for democracy, economic prosperity, less oppressive regimes—might yet be snatched from the jaws of an impending disaster.

To a number of thoughtful Arab writers, such expectations that something good will come from Saddam’s grab for Kuwait, let alone through Saddam’s leadership of the Arab cause, has seemed like clutching at straws. Writing in The New Republic, Fouad Ajami argues that Saddam Hussein should be seen for what he is: a despot who “has pulled off a big heist,…a man at the head of a brittle state,…self-sufficient only in dates and barley.” Saddam Hussein, he writes, is no more likely than Nasser and Khomeini to succeed in the attempt to reorder the Arab/Muslim world to suit his purposes. Yet Ajami fears another potentially disastrous Arab attraction to a “redeemer” who promises easy solutions and easy salvation: “The promise of a strongman offering a fix never dies in vanquished civilizations.”11

This is the theme also of an article in the London Independent by Samir al-Khalil, the pseudonymous Iraqi author of Republic of Fear, a devastating account of Saddam’s regime.12 Does anyone seriously imagine, Khalil asks, that “the Palestinians will be able to negotiate with Israel from a position of strength (not their own strength, of course, but Saddam Hussein’s)” once Saddam becomes the kingpin of Arab politics? Someone who thinks this is the case, he writes, “must have no idea what has been going on inside Iraq during the last 22 years.” Khalil has little patience with those Arabs who, rather than concentrating on what he regards as a case of naked aggression by Iraq, choose instead to concentrate on the real or imagined shortcomings of the Kuwaiti state and its ruling family. “Why,” he asks, “couldn’t Saddam Hussein’s men find a single Kuwaiti to join his puppet government for the few days he kept up that particular pretense? Because they weren’t there.” Samir al-Khalil is impatient with the inclination to blame the current crisis and other Arab problems on the West. The Arab world, he writes, is facing the consequences of unmistakable, long-term “cultural-political corruption”:

Without new ways of thinking about questions of politics and identity in the Arab world, the old ones simply surface…. From the great nationalist thinkers of the “liberal age” (Albert Hourani’s celebrated phrase) to Nasser to Saddam Hussein, an unmistakable cultural-political corruption has been going on in the Arab world for a very long time now. Many people mistook this for a waning of the force of Arab nationalism. They were wrong to do so, as the popular support for Saddam in the Occupied territories and Jordan shows (fanned as it so clearly is by Israel’s shortsighted intransigence in responding to the Palestinian demand for self-determination). This is not a matter of a nasty man playing the demagogue; it is at bottom a cultural failure of historic proportions for which everyone who cares for the future of this part of the world must feel responsible. Saddam Hussein is first and foremost a nightmare of the Arab world’s own making.13

Like Ajami, Khalil suggests Saddam’s aggression will lead not to salvation but to a state of “total confusion” for Arab politics, between means and ends, principles and politics. Unless the Arab world unites against Iraq’s invasion and against “the principle of violence in human affairs, which is what Baathi politics is all about,” he writes, both “the culture and the politics of this part of the world are poised to drive it even further back into darkness.”

The present alignment in the Arab world seems to split broadly (and with much blurring of lines) four ways. A group of Arab states (Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the smaller Gulf sheikdoms) have joined the US in an alliance designed to undo the consequences of Saddam Hussein’s aggression. Jordan and the PLO lead a second group of Arab states and political factions that have not condoned the invasion of Kuwait, but continue to suggest that Iraq has genuine grievances which must be addressed and that want to link a resolution of the Kuwait crisis to a resolution of the Palestinian question. Close to this group are opposition parties in Egypt, Islamic movements throughout the region, radical elements in Iran and elsewhere which, while expressing no sympathy for Saddam Hussein, are enraged by the American military presence in the Gulf. They want the Americans to go; like King Hussein of Jordan, they are proponents of an “Arab solution” to the Gulf crisis.

In the current debate, however, the hard questions are being evaded on all sides. The Arab states—particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—who have lined themselves up against Iraq, have undergone a significant change in their willingness to enter into a tacit military alliance with the US, to permit the stationing of US forces on their soil, and even to contemplate an attack on another Arab state alongside American forces. But there is little genuine public discussion in these countries of the consequences of military action, should it become necessary, or of the implications for Gulf regimes of the general clamor, however vague, for political reform in countries which tend to be primarily family-run affairs.

The proponents of an “Arab solution” and of an immediate withdrawal of American and non-Arab troops from the Gulf are unable to show that Saddam Hussein can be persuaded to withdraw from Kuwait in the absence of an embargo and superior military force—a military force which Arab states on their own could not conceivably provide.

Moreover, while the underlying assumption among the proponents of an “Arab solution” is that Saddam Hussein will give up Kuwait, he has shown no inclination whatever to do so. His much-publicized “peace offer” of August 12 called for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and of Syrian forces from Lebanon, to be followed by “the formulation of arrangements for the situation in Kuwait,” 14 a vague formula which is far from an offer to withdraw. Suggestions in September by François Mitterrand, President Bush, and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd that unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait could lead to moves to resolve other Middle East issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have ellicited hardly any sign of flexibility on the Iraqi side.

Finally, the Arabs who say they see in this crisis a chance to reorder the Arab world and to provide for democracy, social justice, regional security, and a host of other desirable results have yet to show that this is anything more than a list of wishes. As shown by the results of the soul-searching that went on among the Arab nations following the 1967 war, the “reordering” of the Arab world, at least along such lines, is far from easily accomplished.

  1. 1

    The Israeli scholar Amazia Baram has carefully described the many facets of Baath national and pan-Arab ideology over the past decade. Among his articles are: “National Integration and Local Orientation in Iraq Under the Ba’th,” Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 38–51; “Qawmiyya and Wataniyya in Ba’thi Iraq: The Search for a New Balance,” Middle Eastern Studies, April 1983, pp. 188–200; and “Culture in the Service of Wataniyya: The Treatment of Mesopotamian-Inspired Art in Ba’thi Iraq,” in Gabriel Warburg and Gad Gilbar, eds., Studies in Islamic Society (Haifa: Haifa University Press, 1984), pp. 265–313.

  2. 2

    Foreign Affairs, Winter 1978–1979, p. 355.

  3. 3

    Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan’s “An Open Letter to King Hussein,” responding to earlier remarks by the Jordanian monarch, appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times of September 26, 1990. See also the retort to Prince Bandar by the former Jordanian foreign minister, Hazim Nuseibeh, “In Defense of King Hussein,” The Washington Post, October 6, 1990.

  4. 4

    Cited in Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, Near East & South Asia (FBIS/NES), August 10, 1990, p. 12.

  5. 5

    Interview with the author, September 16, 1990.

  6. 6

    In Yideot Aharanot, as cited in Mideast Mirror, August 14, 1990, p. 10.

  7. 7

    Picking Out Early Losers in the Gulf,” Washington Times, September 7, 1990.

  8. 8

    Quoted in Mideast Mirror, September 21, 1990, p. 13.

  9. 9

    The Washington Times, September 7, 1990.

  10. 10

    The article is reprinted in Mideast Mirror, September 20, 1990, pp. 16–18.

  11. 11

    Thief of Baghdad,” The New Republic, September 3, 1990, p. 22.

  12. 12

    See Edward Mortimer’s review of Republic of Fear (University of California Press, 1989), in The New York Review, September 27, 1990.

  13. 13

    Samir al-Khalil, “Drowning in the Gulf of Lies,” The Independent; August 25, 1990.

  14. 14

    FBIS/NES, August 13, 1990, p. 49.

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