U.S. victory over Iraq may unify Arabs against West Global Viewpoint

January 24, 1991|By Rami G. Khouri

AMMAN, JORDAN — THE EUPHORIA of the West during the first week of the war with Iraq was premature and exaggerated.

Americans are shortsighted and naive to boast that Iraq is not going to be another Vietnam. Militarily, of course, they are right. Although the war is likely to last for months, there is little doubt that Iraq ultimately will be defeated.

Politically, however, the war with Iraq will be the grandaddy of all Vietnams. For when the shooting stops, it won't be George Bush's coaliRami G.Khourition -- that posse of desperadoes and bounty hunters which is about as politically powerful as a dead leaf -- that will determine the political trends of the region. It will be the bitter and resentful grass-roots sentiments of hundreds of millions of Arabs.

I would estimate that three quarters of the people of the Arab world stand with Iraq -- not in support of its occupation of Kuwait, but in its confrontation with the United States. Every day that Iraq holds out against the U.S. and strikes against Israel, that grass-roots emotional support for Iraq grows stronger.

The Arab world reached an historic turning point in the 1980s: People lost their fear. After the low water mark of 1982, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese capital of Beirut were being shelled from the hills by Israel, supported by the American Navy, during the Israeli invasion -- which the high-minded Americans now seem to have conveniently forgotten -- the Arab people were fed up.

The Arabs had been so beaten down over the decades by their own autocratic leaders, by their inability to manifest their sense of pan-Arab unity, by their inability to do anything about Israel, by their inability to forge productive and honorable relations with the great powers, that they had hit rock bottom.

Defeat seemed so total that renewal was the only way out. As elsewhere in the world such as Catholic Poland, large numbers of people turned to God when they gave up on the temporal order. From Jordan to Egypt, from Algeria to Lebanon, Islam initially gave Arabs the strength to fight back.

No longer were Arabs willing to suffer the regional disequilibrium with Israel and the tradition of Western imperial military powers' playing games and drawing Arab borders based upon their own colonial interests and on the wishes of the Israeli lobby in Washington.

No longer were Arabs willing to put up with domestic tyranny or the economic and social inequity that characterized the Arab world for so many decades. Starting with the Palestinian and Lebanese Shi'a resistance to Israel in southern Lebanon, the intifada and the struggle for democracy in Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Lebanon, Yemen and other places, Arabs began saying in the 1980s that they were willing to take more destruction than an enemy or oppressor could throw at them, including, as now in Iraq, death by high-technology machines.

Even though most Arabs don't support the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's fearlessness in standing up to our enemies, Israel and America, appeals to the new spirit of the Arab world -- a spirit that says, "We'd rather die on our feet than live groveling on the ground."

Saddam Hussein is, of course, no Santa Claus. He is a rough man. He kills people ruthlessly. Yet, this unlikely, autocratic man has become the medium of a new Arab fearlessness that aims to cast off oppression and subjugation both from abroad and at home.

The paradox of this conflict is that it is in those Arab countries where the people have started to achieve democracy, where people are free to express themselves -- such places as Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen and among Palestinians -- that support for Saddam Hussein is so fervent.

The U.S. is supported by only the mercantile autocracies. Egypt, as always, is an exception because of its obsequious political servitude resulting from dependence on American aid and its powerful self-reliance on its own national identity -- which allows it, in fits of cash-laden confusion, to wander away temporarily from its greater home within the family of Arab nationalism.

Inconveniently for the West, the more free and democratic Arab countries become, the less sympathetic they will be to foreign designs for the region. The more Islamic and anti-Western they will become.

Saddam was not the chosen leader of these Arabs seeking a new order. Ironically, it was the Americans who made him the Saladin [the Muslim sultan who led the Arabs against the Crusaders -- Ed.] he always aspired to be.

After he invaded Kuwait, every Arab country without exception, far from praising him, called on him to withdraw at once, and many Arab leaders undertook immediate and fervent diplomatic action to secure such a withdrawal. But the Saudis and the Egyptians panicked and called in the Americans.

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