It takes two to make a war, and there were indeed two protagonists in making this war. On the one hand, there was the United States, which wanted the war for a number of reasons, primarily global: to consecrate its world hegemony, to liquidate any sequels to bipolarism, to marginalize Europe and Japan, to control Arab oil at the start of the coming millennium. On the other hand, there was Saddam Hussein who, even as victim, agreed to play the role of criminal, providing George Bush the opportunity to make an example of a Third World country.

In what way was the Iraqi leader a victim? Iraq had just emerged from its war against Iran with the kind of military potential that could alter the regional balance of forces with regard to the two local pillars of imperial domination: Israel and the oil regimes of the Gulf. It became imperative to contain Iraq and destroy its military and economic capability. The Iraqi leader reacted by invading Kuwait, a gesture which, according to a minimalist reading, was akin to taking hostages prior to negotiations but which, in its maximalist reading, gave Saddam the illusion of being able to annex the emirate permanently. This, in any case, was the beginning of a tragic succession of errors whereby the Iraqi president, weak as he was, believed that he was playing the strong man, imagining that he could defy a military apparatus ready for “star wars” with an army constructed along the lines of World War I. This provided the drama: Saddam Hussein was outfitted in the costume of Hitler, and he was delighted to wear it. It is necessary nonetheless to emphasize the fact that the US and its allies committed a characteristic crime by inflating Iraq’s capability, even though they knew in advance the extent of the massacre they were preparing against the Iraqi army and people. Saddam Hussein forfeited the chance to withdraw from Kuwait before January 15, and with it the chance to provoke a split between the international consensus condemning his occupation and the US determination to destroy Iraq under the pretext of liberating Kuwait. The Iraqi leader committed one mistake after another: first, propagating the illusion that the US would back down from combat, and then perpetually delaying concessions.

Like many Arabs, I feel torn between the need to describe and condemn the crime committed by the allied forces, a crime that will leave deep wounds in the Arab perception of the West, and the need to undertake our own self-critique, and demand an accounting from the leadership that conducted this battle. From this point of view, a number of lessons must inevitably be drawn.

The first lesson is that we have learned next to nothing from the 1967 defeat. We have just seen a tragic replay of all the myths of a defeated thinking. War ends with a victor and a vanquished. A military defeat cannot provide for a political victory. The second lesson consists in the collapse of a fantastic mentality based on triumphalism and the cult of virility. A third lesson is the end of the illusion that a single country can prosecute a war in the name of the entire Arab world, on the premise that the Arabs will, through consensus or coercion, come to its assistance. A significant part of the Iraqi battle plan was based on the illusory wager that the other Arab states would join in, that the al-Husayn missiles would involve Israel in the war and, in turn, lead to the involvement of the Egyptian and Syrian regimes, in which case it would become impossible for Iran and the Soviet Union to remain on the sidelines. One can only conclude that there is some kind of gap in our memory, a blindness to the lessons of history.

We need to reexamine the Vietnam model now that the United States has acquired the means to wage war without direct involvement of its soldiers in ground combat.

What the United States most feared was that Saddam Hussein would cheat them of that opportunity by unilaterally announcing his withdrawal from Kuwait. But he did not do that. Now one needs to investigate the ensemble of representations by which the Iraqi regime perceived itself, its people, the Arab world and international relations.

Consider the claim that Saddam Hussein adopted the Palestinian tactic of the intifada. But when a country of 17 million inhabitants, with the second largest petroleum reserves in the world, a million-soldier army and enormous firepower, when such a country begins to imitate the children of the intifada, it is time to beware. The children of the intifada are part of a people in revolt, practicing passive resistance against an occupation army. They know, because they are unarmed, that they can at least impose a set of restrictions on that army. This is both the strength of the intifada and the source of its weakness. That an army of a million men should act according to this model, or even like the Palestinian fedayeen firing rockets on Israel from southern Lebanon, indicates that its capability has been reduced to the level of what might be called “armed propaganda.”

I am deeply skeptical about the usefulness of symbolic wars. Wars are not necessarily moments of total rupture that reverse the course of history and magically transform things into their opposite. Wars allow only the harvest of what has been sown in times of peace. In the Arab world, we tend to have a militarist mentality that assumes that war can compensate for everything that has been neglected in peacetime. What has been neglected? Practically everything: development and economic accumulation — to be distinguished from importing technological gadgets, even when wrapped in the label “Arab national renaissance project”; democracy and a respect for the citizen; Arab unity; the idea of a pluralist democratic process that could mobilize people, especially linguistic, ethnic, confessional or cultural minorities.

Since none of this has been accomplished in peace time, symbolic battles appear today like the fruit of an unnatural marriage between a decadent nationalist ideology and an integrist thought without integrity. Look, for example, at the behavior of the Islamist groups during the crisis. That bastardized creature gets carried away on the symbol and leaves to the “enemy” all the levers of command that allow it to dominate the entire region, in particular its resources, its exchange mechanisms and its consumption.

Another lesson to be drawn from this experience has to do with the distinction between Arab nationalism and internal democracy. I am one of those who announced their solidarity with the Iraqi regime during the battle — without, however, renouncing my fundamental opposition to the repressive relations that that regime has maintained with its people. It is true that this region is governed by two irreducible logics: one internal and specific to each Arab country, the other common to the whole Arab world. This second logic, though, is not simply the sum of the interior evolutions of the separate Arab countries.

For me, the lesson to derive from the behavior of the Iraqi leadership is this: the domestic economic-political character of a regime is fully continuous with the way in which it conducts its external battles in struggles on the Arab national level. The insular and dictatorial character of the Iraqi government is no secondary factor in this battle, nor in the way it has been carried out. It may be, as claimed, that the regime is surrounded with advisers, but the role of these advisers is to nurture the president’s narcissism and to provide that counsel most agreeable to him, in order to avoid the fate of others who opposed him — murder.

Democracy would in no way constitute a source of weakness for the Arabs, but rather a source of strength. The war, after all, has dispelled any illusion that dictatorships are strong. Here I do not mean Iraq’s defeat by 28 countries led by the United States, but rather the fact that the dictator himself chose finally to withdraw from Kuwait and to accept forthwith all the conditions of the surrender in order to save himself and maintain his own power.

I am concerned with the need to understand the manner in which the Iraqi leadership has responded to the projected destruction of Iraq. The battle has been waged in our name, and we have participated in it in one way or another. It is time now for an accounting. As an Arab citizen, I demand that he who drew me into that battle resign, for having led us into a war that could have been avoided and for having led his own people through two devastating wars. The entire Iraqi government, not only the president but the Revolutionary Command Council and the party, should be removed in order to spare Iraq any further bloodshed. We should reject the blackmail that claims that the only alternative to Saddam is anarchy. I say this without abandoning my own reservations about the Iraqi opposition and my critique of many positions that it has adopted, especially during this crisis. The essential thing is that the Iraqi people be free to decide the kind of regime that they want.

Concerning the future of Arab issues, notably the Palestine question, we must be clear that there is no compensation in war. Relations of force rule. Why should the United States accept linkage between Palestine and the Gulf affair after the war, when it refused such linkage as a way of avoiding war? Ever since 1967, the West has been telling us, or rather telling their friends, that it was necessary to defeat the strong Arab actor so that Israel could be persuaded to accept a peaceful settlement. This they said about Nasser. What settlement was there?

In fact, this region is not destined for stability. Since it took on the political shape that we recognize today, it has been fated for fragmentation and destruction. In the past we used to say that the United States could not tolerate a war in a region so strategically important to its economy. But the United States tolerated perfectly well eight years of war between Iran and Iraq. Even today there are many who claim that they must settle the Palestinian question because they have to think of oil security. But war raged for eight years right in front of the pipeline. It seems that we have not yet understood that imperialism, if you will excuse the “archaism,” is a system of violence and war, and the dominant language with which it speaks in our region is one of violence and war.

Although the problems of the region have become more complex following the war, there are nonetheless some few positive elements to retain for the future. The most important is without doubt the extraordinary mobilization of the unity of the Arab people and their own consciousness of that unity. At the same time, the people demonstrated that they have not forgotten that their main enemy is the United States, whose interests they confront daily, whether in the form of the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, of Israel, of an aggressive culture, or in the colossal contempt shown to their religious and cultural identity — Islam. What will we retain from this war? First, that it was an oil crusade. Second, that Arab people everywhere will not forgive those regimes which not only invited and financed this massacre but also squandered the wealth that could have opened for the Arabs the door to the twenty-first century!

Translated from the French by Barbara Harlow

How to cite this article:

Fawwaz Traboulsi "Harvest of War," Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991).

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