As the United States stands on the brink of its first full-scale war with an Arab country, it is incumbent on all of us to share our expertise and our experience with the broader public. The consequences of a major war in this region have not been fully thought out — by the public, by the politicians or by the administration. This country is going into a major conflict at least half-blind. Yet there is only a feeble public debate on the momentous issues at stake.
The alternatives to war have not been fully explored. We see an enormous stick being wielded by the US and allies; there is no sign of a carrot, no inducements to negotiation. We are told it is unacceptable as a matter of principle to tamper with United Nations resolutions calling for Iraq’s unconditional withdrawal, that these must be implemented without the slightest deviation. I would be much more sympathetic to such assertions, such assertions would be much more palatable, if they were not coming from the mouths of the very same people who for so many years have told us that other UN decisions — for example, the ten resolutions passed by the Security Council on Jerusalem between 1968 and 1980 — cannot be implemented simply because one party to the dispute rejects them. This makes it hard to believe that this is solely a matter of principle. We accept the principle of not tampering with Security Council resolutions, but it is hard to understand why the alternatives to war go unexplored, why the possibility of compromise is not discussed.
The consequences of war have not been laid out to the American public. A very serious decision is about to be made without debate. This is something that we as students, scholars and experts on the Middle East have a responsibility to remedy. We know that if war comes, it will be far bloodier than many expect. We know that if the US uses the full weight of 430,000 soldiers, some 2,000 combat aircraft, six aircraft carrier battle groups and all the rest, there will be a terrible backlash throughout most of this region which will affect the US and the Middle East for many years to come. Most of us know that a massive war will probably lead to a dangerous power vacuum, to further instability, with the probability of a long-term US military presence and constant conflict.
We know these things. We should say these things as loudly and as clearly as we can. We should say them now, before war begins, because after American society is polarized, as it will be after the enemy is fully demonized, we will not be listened to, we will be isolated, we will be unable to make our voices heard.
The crucial issue in the current muted and desultory debate over war in the Gulf has to do with the situation in the region once the crisis caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is resolved. This issue concerns the regional power balance, and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. There is a profoundly racist discourse at work here which we need to expose. If the problem is in fact one of an imbalance of power — that is to say, the danger of Iraq having this enormous arsenal — and if the problem is truly one of a proliferation of non-conventional weapon — chemical and ballistic weapons which already exist and a potential nuclear capability — then it should be resolved in the Middle East, and can only be resolved in the Middle East, in the same way that it is being resolved in Europe: by mutual, balanced force reductions, growing out of negotiations on the basis of equity, in the context of a regional security regime. The demand to resolve this problem by the destruction of Iraqi capabilities alone is based on assumptions that are unacceptable because they are deeply racist: In essence, non-European peoples cannot be trusted with these kinds of weapons.
It is not too late to stop war in the Gulf. It is not too late to bring under control the systems that are already in the hands of regional powers. But this can only be done through mutual, balanced reductions affecting all parties, by creating a regional security system, and all this is predicated on urgent attention to resolving the disputes which in the first place led these countries to develop these systems of mass destruction. This is the only way. Attempting to destroy unilaterally the capabilities of Iraq will lead to the creation of an imbalance which will plague us for decades to come. There will be attempts to right that imbalance, to fill the vacuum created, which will cause instability and will make the conflicts that have occurred so far seem minor indeed.
This is not a partisan point of view. This is the path of rationality. An Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait must be secured through negotiations. This must be linked to the resolution of regional conflicts, to the creation of a regional security regime and to negotiation of non-conventional arms limitations that include all parties in the Middle East.
War, whatever the reasons given for launching it, is the path of madness. Wars cannot be controlled once started. They will not develop the way we think they will. There will be no winners in a war in this region — not the United States even if it prevails, nor Iraq even if it survives, nor Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states even if they escape massive destruction, nor Israel even if it stays out of the war. A war will bring unmitigated evil on the heads of all. All of us must do whatever is possible, whatever needs to be done, to prevent it.