Avoiding the 'Next Saddam'

March 10, 1991|By WILLIAM O. BEEMAN

Now that Saddam Hussein has been defeated in the Persian Gulf war, it is not too soon to be thinking seriously about the next confrontation between the United States and the Middle East -- the "next Saddam."

Americans have become used to taking the pulse of public opinion instantaneously following an event. The spectacular finale of the gulf war is no exception. Television is filled with images of cheering Kuwaitis welcoming American troops to their now-liberated country. The message presented to Americans at home is that the war has taken care of Saddam Hussein, and the threat to the region for the time being. Moreover, we are told, Americans are now regarded as heroes by Middle Eastern peoples.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For many people in the Middle East, the events of the gulf war are only the latest episode in a long series of confrontations between Western powers and Middle Eastern peoples dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Avoiding such confrontations is the way to avoid the "next Saddam."

The great empires of the Middle East -- the Ottoman Empire and Iran -- were more civilized and powerful than England in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. The industrial revolution in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought a severe challenge the Middle East. The modernized army of Russia hacked away at the Caucasian and Central Asian territories of the Iranians and the Ottoman Turks. Great Britain in turn dominated the sea in protection of the trade routes to its own Indian empire, and established a string of colonies on the Arabian peninsula -- including Kuwait.

More serious were the economic challenges of European manufacture and trade. The hand-industries of the Middle East simply could not compete with cheap European manufactured goods.

The Ottoman and Iranian rulers were distraught, but developed a clever plan to get the money to rebuild their armies and modernize their industry and governmental infrastructure. They sold "concessions" to wealthy European financiers for every conceivable development right -- banking, telegraph systems, toll roads and commercial activity. The most lucrative concessions, however, were for the exploitation of agricultural and mineral rights.

As a result, European-financed cotton plantations were set up in Egypt. Mineral rights were granted to Westerners in Iran and the gulf region, including the right to drill, pump and sell oil.

This set up a pattern whereby secular rulers worked in cooperation with Western governments and financial powers to exploit the patrimony of Middle Eastern citizens. It is the perception of this pattern which persists today in the Middle East and colors every event.

An Islamic resistance movement grew in the nineteenth century in which citizens inspired by religious leaders staged demonstrations and riots against the foreigners and threatened their own rulers. This movement is the ultimate origin of such events as the the Arab nationalist movement inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the rule of Libya's Muammar Kadafi and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Following World War I, Britain and France created out of pieces of the Ottoman Empire the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, installing their own hand-picked rulers. The European powers backed these rulers with their own armies. The clear intent was to maintain European power in the region for the indefinite future.

Following World War II, Great Britain and France could no longer afford to hold on to their colonial empires, and withdrew their forces. The result was a series of civil wars which eventually threw out all the European-backed rulers in the former Ottoman territories except King Hussein of Jordan.

Then the United States entered the scene. Washington replicated the actions of the British and French by reinstalling the Shah of Iran on his throne after a nationalist coup in 1952, and propping up the Saudi royal family. In the 1970s both the Shah and the Saudi royal family were given extensive military and financial support by the United States in a move to protect oil resources from falling into Soviet hands.

Once again, popular resistance to rulers in league with the West caused the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. This sent the United States into a flurry of activity leading to the establishment of the U.S. Central Command with the logistics in place for a 500,000 man army. It didn't realize that size until the gulf crisis. It is noteworthy that the United States was able to prosecute the war only after co-opting the Saudi royal family into allowing a massive American military presence in their country.

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