A Chance to Face Reality in the Middle East

March 07, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. Southeastern Iraq's cities in the hands of Shiite fundamentalists under Iranian influence, and Kuwait delivered to militias under no one's control, are no part of the new Middle Eastern order President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have had in mind.

However, the law of unintended consequences works on the upside as well as the downside, and the coalition's brilliant military victory has brought a particular and salutary political clarification to the region.

It has proved the idea of ''the Arab nation'' -- as King Hussein of Jordan now acknowledges -- ''just a beautiful dream.'' Not only that but a destructive dream, concealing reality.

There are several Arab nations, and also an Arab undefined space where trouble repeatedly arises.

The historical nations in the Eastern Mediterranean are Mesopotamia (the core of present-day Iraq); Persia (Iran); Turkey; Lebanon; Egypt and Israel. Israel not in the sense of a historical nation, which it obviously is not, but that a Jewish nation exists which historically has had its place both in the Middle East and in the diaspora.

Lebanon similarly is a historical nation by the fact that a community of Christian Arabs has existed on or near Mount Lebanon since early Christian times, together, later, with a Druze community, interacting in some tension with the Muslim majority.

These nations exist alongside that larger space that historically was imperial rather than national in political character. There were great cities in this space -- Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem -- and also vast undemarcated regions populated by agriculturists or nomads with shifting feudal political attachments.

Baghdad was capital of the Arab Abbasid Empire at the time of greatest Arab power and glory. Its struggle with Iran goes back to antiquity, a conflict between Persians and Arabs, reinforced in Muslim times by the rivalry between Sunnites and Shiites. The Iranian Shiites, humiliated during the Iran-Iraq war, are looking for revenge today, and seem to be finding it, thanks to the success of Operation Desert Storm.

XTC Kuwait was a pearl and fishing settlement, dominated since the mid-18th century by the al Sabah family, still absolute rulers today, if weakened ones.

Saudi Arabia had no distinct political character until the mid-20th century, although its holy places were under the protection of the Hashemite family, descendants of the Prophet. Ibn Saud, leader of a puritanical sect, drove out the Hashemites in 1924-25. Afterward it was ''Saudi'' Arabia.

In the mid-1930s, Ibn Saud signed an oil-exploration contract with American interests because he believed that as the United States had no colonial record in the region and was far away, it was safer to deal with than the Europeans. The rest, as they say, is history.

The troubles today have come in those spaces where nations are lacking and the ''beautiful dream'' of the Arab nation prevailed. Hence Iraq's determination to deny that Kuwait exists. Hence Syrian expansionism: its ambition to annex Lebanon, which possesses a national legitimacy Syria itself lacks.

Hence the struggle that has been going on for 70 years between Palestinian Arabs and Zionists, now Israelis, both promised the same territory by Britain when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Hence the insecurity of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who know that they are not real nations at all.

The dream of the single Arab nation exploded by this war, Arabs are held together in the aftermath of Desert Storm by one surviving interest in common: their common conflict with Israel, considered the usurper of Palestine and the enduring agency of Western colonization in the region.

End that and the Arab world would fall into its real parts. It would be required, for the first time since Britain and France's colonial authority withdrew, to address its internal conflicts of political ambition and interest, the social injustices that disfigure its society, the feebleness of its political structures (exploited so easily by the Saddam Husseins and Hafez el Assads) and the irrelevance of its florid political rhetoric to the cruel precisions of modern technology and industrial power.

It would confront the intellectual failure that has locked it politically in the 12th century, when Islamic public law was codified and theocracy legitimized, producing the lasting Islamic failure to address secularized Europe and America in any effective and equal manner.

Secretary Baker is determined to try once again for a peace settlement between the Arab governments and Israel, the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. There is unlikely ever to be a more propitious moment to make the attempt.

Success would not only give Israel the true security that rests on consent, it could unlock the Arab world from the prison of its past -- a liberation for it, but equally for Israel and the West.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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