The United States and the Arab world are on the edge of war. What is at stake is no longer the fate of Kuwait’s privileged elite. Nor is it only the political future of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The US military intervention, unilateral in all but name, has transformed a regional crisis into a contest over the extent of US control of local resources and over the shape of the post-Cold War balance of power. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a crude act of aggression. Whatever Baghdad’s grievances, Saddam expressed them as exorbitant, non-negotiable demands that became the excuse for an impulsive invasion. Military aggression was quickly compounded by the decision to annex Kuwait just a few days later, closing a door to political retreat.
The US response, though, is not about self-determination. This sequence of events, had it occurred in some part of the world other than the Persian Gulf, would have prompted no more than a bit of tongue-clucking in Washington. In confronting this largest US military buildup since Vietnam, we do not accept the sudden devotion of the United States to principles of territorial integrity or to the authority of the United Nations. It was entirely fitting that George Bush’s war cabinet took its decision to intervene in a room at Camp David festooned with memorabilia from the December 1989 invasion of Panama.
This intervention is first of all about oil. Iraq’s invasion challenged the political hierarchies that have controlled the wealth and resources of the region for most of this century. These hierarchies include the ruling families of Arabia. One reason the princes of Arabia still exercise their micro-sovereignty today is in large part because this arrangement has suited the industrial powers. US troops are in Saudi Arabia in order to prevent the emergence of a regional power that, unlike the Saudis, might choose to exploit and mobilize those resources in ways that conflict with the agenda of the United States.
This intervention is also about asserting a commanding US role in the global political and economic restructuring following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It is a spectacular claim that the military dimension is still relevant in calculating the international balance of power, providing the US with another decade or so in which to maneuver from a position of strength. It further reorients US military priorities from an East-West to a North-South axis. And it challenges the claim for any significant “peace dividend” in the political struggle over resources within the US.
We condemn Iraq’s invasion, not from any attachment to the political order Saddam is challenging, but from our opposition to the order that his regime represents. Kuwaitis — all who live and work there — should determine their political future and the flag under which they want to live, but not with Saddam’s boot on their necks. In its ideology and in its political practice, Iraq’s Baath Party displays a distinct fascist streak. Sabah family rule in Kuwait has indeed been corrupt and undemocratic, enough to have stirred militant confrontations in the streets of the city earlier this year. But neither Kuwaiti opponents of the emir nor the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Palestinians, Egyptians and other “guest” workers there want to trade the stifling autocracy of the Sabahs for the tyranny of Saddam. According to Amnesty International, Saddam inaugurated the “liberation” of Kuwait by rounding up thousands of Iraqi dissidents living there and shipping them back to a grisly fate.
The bankruptcy of Saddam’s project is evident. There is his remarkable offer to conclude a peace treaty with Iran on precisely the terms he rejected in 1980, when he launched his previous invasion. Hundreds of thousands of lives later, there is nothing so wrong with those terms after all. Then there are his desperate attempts to explain this latest aggression, starting with the chimerical “free Kuwaiti officers.” Saddam’s cynical claims notwithstanding, he is no representative of the dispossessed. When it comes to squandering human lives and wealth, Saddam has no peer.
He has indeed been able to mobilize strong Arab popular support. In the case of the Palestinians, resentment of the class and national oppression that Kuwait embodies combines with the even more profound resentment of US support for Israeli aggression and of the ineffective role of ally-clients like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in pressing for Israeli compliance with the very same international principles that have all of a sudden become so critical when major amounts of oil are involved.
This displacement of hostility toward the US into support for Saddam could well be the most unfortunate and damaging consequence of the Iraqi invasion. For Saddam’s Iraq represents a liberation of fools. The expansion of Iraq’s political system is not something we favor. We have consistently opposed the political and financial support that the US has provided to Saddam’s regime right up to the evening of August 1, 1990. But how that system evolves is primarily an issue for people living there to decide. It is not on their behalf that Washington has dispatched its war machine.
There is uneasiness among many of those who have rallied behind Saddam now that this has become a contest between Iraq and the United States. People are caught in a contradictory situation with a champion they did not choose.
The US administration’s calculations have put the Middle East into a sort of parenthesis. Few voices in the US seem to be raising questions about what will happen to the people there, or indeed to the entire state system that this intervention is supposed to preserve. It is a mark of self-delusion that the administration and the media continue to cite Arab League endorsement of the US campaign. Twelve of 21 states is a bare majority. Seven of the 12 include Saudi Arabia and the tiny Gulf states — Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait — and Djibouti. Lebanon here counts as Syria’s second vote. Those backing the resolution who matter are Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Morocco’s assent is obviously grudging. Nearly everywhere else — Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan — there is powerful popular opposition to collusion with the United States. Even in Egypt, and especially in Syria, the consequences for the regimes are by no means safe ones.
Why did the US respond this way? Why did it ignore the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War, and the impressive international consensus against Iraq’s invasion, to exercise the non-military but potentially very effective international consensus machinery of the United Nations? In a way, George Bush responded to Iraq’s aggression like Saddam Hussein responded to Kuwait’s stubbornness: by choosing a military over a political solution, by overreaching, by taking steps that are now difficult to reverse. The symmetry of their behavior is striking. The US can win the military contest, though the price in blood and treasure is likely to be frightful. There is no way the US can now win the political contest. Intentionally or not, the administration has imposed upon itself a logic of escalation to war and, at best, a pyrrhic victory.