Are the United States and the Arab world “on the edge of war,” as the editors of Middle East Report put it in their September-October 1990 editorial? I think not. Rather, Iraq, a criminal state, has extended the violence that rules inside its own borders into Kuwait. This act by itself and before the intervention of the United States threatens to destroy the modern Arab state order as we have known it. That order may not be much. But it is all we have. And the overriding issue is how to stop Saddam Hussein from replacing it with something immeasurably worse.
To begin with, the MERIP editorial bypasses the fundamental fact that the Arab world itself is more deeply divided over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait than it has ever been on any issue in the modern era. This is the first time one Arab state has invaded another. And what an invasion! Kuwait has been pillaged and looted; its hospitals emptied of equipment; the contents of its shops and museums sent to Baghdad; its street lamps uprooted and carted off; even the animals in its zoo have been slaughtered to feed Iraqi soldiers. The infrastructure of the country is being run down and in some cases systematically destroyed. Drinking water has to be boiled because it has become polluted. Kuwaitis have been rounded up, and summarily shot. Some are dispatched to Baghdad, tortured and sent back into Kuwait City to tell their stories. Their houses have been blown up. Shops have been ransacked and streets lie deserted with stripped-out cars strewn all around. An atmosphere of terror has taken grip in what was only two months ago a cosmopolitan and freewheeling place by contemporary Middle Eastern standards.
It is as though the invaders wish to erase the place off the map, destroy every last vestige of identity that it might once have possessed. And with such venom and savagery! This is not the first time that the Iraqi Baath have tried out such a policy. They are past masters at the erasure of a people’s identity, as any Iraqi Kurd will tell you.
Maybe Kuwaitis do not deserve to be called “a people.” Or maybe bigger things are at stake, as the editors of MERIP put it, than “the fate of Kuwaitrsquo;s elite and privileged autonomy.” This argument plays into the hands of the Iraqi Baath. For the internal division of the Arab world over the invasion of Kuwait is in point of fact not one between ruler and ruled. Nor is it one between the “rich” and the “poor” Arabs as some Arab intellectuals have shamelessly chosen to word it. The division is between regimes and whole chunks of Arab public opinion on either side.
Consider Egypt, for example. Here popular opinion is solidly on Mubarak’s side, and the reason is not difficult to understand. Something like 2 million Egyptians have direct experience with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Many Egyptians were forcibly drafted into the Iraqi army during the Iraq-Iran war. Fifty to 70 Egyptians have been flown every month to Cairo from Baghdad in body bags; these are victims of ongoing clashes with the Iraqi mukhabarat [secret police] which first erupted a year ago when the Baath stopped allowing Egyptian resident workers to send their remittances back to their families in Egypt. At the time, it was rumored, several hundred were mowed down with machine guns on the streets of Baghdad. Some of the bodies were sent back at the time (135 bodies arrived in Cairo during October 1989 according to The Independent of November 9, 1989). Then the affair was hushed up, even inside Egypt. Since the invasion hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have been stripped of everything they possess before being allowed to scramble back to Egypt through the new refugee camps which have sprouted up in Jordan. Those who remain in Iraq face a very uncertain future. Understandably, Egyptians are not feeling like hushing things up any more.
The point is that Egyptians are a people who have no illusions in Saddam Hussein, and who have reacted to the invasion of Kuwait on the basis of a real, bitter experience. By contrast the Palestinians in the West Bank have no such experience. Their illusions in Saddam Hussein stem from a different reality: the desperate hopelessness of their position vis-à-vis Israel. The question is: Should a political position be grounded in such illusions or on political reality as it is lived on the ground?
Suppose the latter. Then the reaction of the Arab regimes in the first weeks of the invasion leaves no room for doubt that had it been left up to them, Saddam Hussein would have gotten away with his annexation of Kuwait. Not out of choice, but out of everyone else’s weakness and political bankruptcy. It is necessary to recall here Baathist Iraq’s growing prestige following the end of the Iraq-Iran war, the Arab newspaper editorials denying use of poison gas in the wake of Halabja, the cheering on of Iraq by the entire Arab media in the wake of the forced confession and subsequent execution of [British journalist] Farhad Bazoft, and the feeling all over the Arab world that Iraqi efforts to obtain nuclear or “supergun” technology were in the long-term interests of the greater struggle against Israel. Consequently, to denounce the involvement of the US (working as it has thus far done under the auspices of the United Nations) on the grounds that it “has transformed a regional crisis into a contest over fundamental issues of control of resources and over the shape of the post-Cold War balance of power globally,” is, in effect, to acquiesce in the erasure of Kuwait.
But the integrity of Kuwait is exactly what is at stake for Arab politics in the wake of the Iraqi action. No Arab is worried in his or her guts about the price of a barrel of oil (it is going up anyway). Insofar as most Arabs are not still reeling from the shock of it all, they are today thinking about their very existence, who they are, or who they want to be. Issues of identity and the right to be different, to be or not to be a Kuwaiti, are politically posed in the Gulf today. Not oil, as the MERIP editors claim. Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in the size of its oil reserves (another gaping hole in the “rich” versus “poor” Arab theory of the conflict). If there is one thing that everyone involved agrees upon, it is to keep the supply of oil flowing in the long run and a few dollars up or down on the price is neither here nor there. Saddam Hussein has no problems with the United States or anyone else about that. The oil pricing dispute he manufactured with Kuwait in July, just before the invasion, was a transparent pretext identical in kind to the one he manufactured with Iran in 1980 just prior to his invasion of that country. On the other hand, he does want to shape Arab politics and be the kingpin of the region. That is why he went into Kuwait. And that is why Kuwait would only be the first step toward much larger regional ambitions, unless and until he is stopped decisively and unambiguously.
I have not the slightest doubt that the reasons for the United States involving itself in “saving Kuwait” are wholly and completely cynical. All the parties in this confrontation, as in most confrontations, are acting out of self-interest. But since when has that been the basis for adopting a political position? In any case, the question surely is not why the United States is behaving in the way that it is, but what is in the best interests of the people of the region. To address that question one must begin with the way that the crisis itself started: the invasion of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein put this question on the table, and he told the world that as far as he was concerned it was the most important question. Do the editors of MERIP think they can avoid answering him? When human beings are attacked, whether as Jews in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, or as Palestinians under Israeli occupation, or as Kuwaitis, their first and perfectly justifiable response is to assert that they are who they are attacked for being. Suddenly something becomes very important even when it may not have been in the beginning. When Palestinians are humiliated and insulted as Palestinians on the West Bank, they assert their Palestinianhood. The intifada was all about that. Kuwaitis are no different than Palestinians. They had a right to be asked and they have a right to be who they want to be. This is not a corrupt and rapacious people as vulgar Arab opinion would have it. The shameful pandering to such prejudices about “the Bedouin” Gulf Arabs which is going on today will do more to divide the Arab world in the long run than any intervention by the United States.
At bottom, the MERIP editorial on the Gulf crisis rests on a fiction: It substitutes a projection about the future for political reality as it is felt on the ground by the Arabs most immediately affected. This is an approach to politics which grows out of the very American insularity that it wants so much to reject. Worse still, it feeds into the most stereotypical American prejudices about Arabs and the Arab world that its upholders so genuinely abhor. Its adoption can only be at the cost of being relevant.