Hussein Is Better Humiliated Than Dead

WILLIAM PFAFF

February 28, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- Saddam Hussein alive, defeated, amid Iraq's dead and ruins, confronted with responsibility for all that he has done to his people, is an outcome to this war clearly better than Saddam Hussein dead and martyred. That ought to be obvious to all but the most committed of those interpreting history as demonology.

President George Bush seems to understand this, and his administration has consistently stated American war aims as limited to the liberation of Kuwait. That automatically carries with it destruction of the Iraqi military apparatus. The two allied armored columns now actually inside Iraq, cutting off the Republican Guards' positions, surely have as mission to destroy the Guards' armor. The Iraqi armor and weaponry committed inside Kuwait will not return to Iraq if Washington has its way.

But where are we then? There are two approaches possible to the postwar Middle East, but only one is a probability, which is that we go back to much the situation as before. Iraq will be stricken from the power balance for a decade or so. The influence of Syria, Iran and Turkey will be enlarged. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be stronger political actors, but still American clients. The influence of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region will be much enhanced. The Palestinian-Israeli struggle will be more envenomed than ever.

A Palestinian settlement is, in principle, possible -- in practice remote. The Bush Administration would dearly like one. However, the war has hardened extreme commitments on both sides. The idea that Israel would yield territory for a Palestinian state, or the Palestinians, or Jordanians, accept the removal of Palestinians to Jordan, with Jordan renamed ''Palestine'' -- what this Israeli government apparently wants -- seems more unlikely than ever.

The optimistic approach to the postwar Middle East could be called the neo-colonialist one. It holds that the West has a duty, interest and opportunity to remake the Middle Eastern order by garrisoning the region and intervening in active support of governments whom the West approves (among whom, until very recently, Iraq would have been numbered).

One can also hear intervention justified by the contention that, politically, Islamic society is inherently corrupt and vicious, having ''century after century'' been led by ''hater-killers'' -- to employ the expressions of A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times.

A characteristic statement of the optimistic view says that ''intervening to restore Kuwait carries with it the contrary obligation not to withdraw afterward, but to garrison the region. Not as an act of imperialism, and even less for oil, but out of confidence in the West and its democracy, proving that superior force now means peace.''

A still more robust British commentator, in London's Sunday Telegraph, assures us that ''power in the Middle East does flow out of the barrel of a gun, and henceforth it must be ours rather than theirs.''

There is something to be said for that, but not only in the Middle East. Power and guns was originally Chinese and continues to fit China very nicely. The Middle East was not a very peaceful place even when the Europeans ran it. Two world wars were waged in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, and the Maghreb, which Europeans started, not the Arabs, conducting their campaigns on Arab territory and drafting Arab auxiliaries to fight for them.

The European powers took the Arab Middle East away from the Ottoman Turks by war. Afterward, between the world wars, there was a relatively quiet period, except for the Rifs fighting Spanish and French colonial forces, the Senussi fighting the Italians in Libya, and the Palestinians fighting the Jewish settlers moving into Mandate Palestine. There were, however, no high-tech Arab-Israeli wars, no Iran-Iraq slaughter, and terrorism was a minor phenomenon.

One can certainly make a case for neo-colonialism. But why bother? The people advocating it saw their countries lacking the courage of their convictions when those countries did rule the Middle East, and they do not have the political weight today to try to reimpose it.

Britain scuttled from Palestine (and India), leaving chaos behind, and was pushed out of its other colonies under constant pressure and the drumbeat of criticism from the U.S. -- the leading force in the decolonization of precisely those parts of the world, Iraq, Lebanon, Vietnam and Cambodia, where American governments have since intervened militarily to ''save'' the natives from communism and ''disorder.''

Let us try to be realistic about what is to come in the Middle East. The United States is not going to garrison and run the region, even if this administration wished to do so -- of which it shows little sign. Moreover, the American attention span is short and something will soon push the Middle East low on Washington's agenda.

The U.S. will become more implicated in Arab affairs than in the past. It may acquire base agreements or leave a small permanent force in the Persian Gulf. This actually is probably not a good idea because it would perpetuate the enmity of those who would see even this as neo-colonialism, while it would lack the ability to make a real difference in how the region develops.

The future of the Middle East is not really susceptible to fundamental change through outside intervention. The political culture of the place is too dense, the history too rich for that. The future, unfortunately, is likely to prove very much like the recent past, possibly rather worse. That is the real reason for criticizing this war. It has been an immense and costly success, whose result will prove only that the mills of God grind slowly, and brook little help from man.

William Pfaff writes about foreign affairs.

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