At least Saddam has changed status quo


IN CLASSICAL antiquity, the Stoic doctrine advocated that if a completely new beginning is to be made, nothing of the old must remain.

Fortunately, one does not have to be a Stoicist, nor even a political philosopher, to see today that the status quo now prevailing in the Middle East cannot be sustained.

There are now about 200 million Arabs dispersed in 22 heterogenous states. A high percentage of them still live below subsistence level, while few thousand have wealth that neither they nor their descendants could ever live long enough to spend.

The majority of the 52 million Egyptians, 25 million Moroccans and 21 million Sudanese, for instance, are basket cases. Meanwhile, only 1 percent of the Arab people are nationals of the oil-producing Persian Gulf countries whose aggregate gross national product amounts to 25 percent of that owned by the rest of the Arab world. When Saudi Arabia is added to the gulf countries, the figures become 5 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

Such a lopsided situation inevitably leads to instability. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is but a dramatic example.

Organizations such as the European Economic Community help BTC to eliminate such discrepancies in the West. But for the Arab people, such cooperative measures, when attempted, have been whimsical, rarely systematic and invariably modest. A striking example is the $300 million annually pledged by Arab leaders at their 1988 Algiers summit to support the Palestinians (with a $700 per capita yearly income) living in the Israeli-occupied territories. This represents a mere one-fifth of 1 percent of Kuwait's estimated assets.

Economic and financial imbalances strain a political environment already saturated with other ingredients for instability and frustrations.

A million and a half Palestinians still live under military occupation with the daily risk of having their arms broken if raised against their occupiers. Another 3 million are dispersed all over the globe. Half of Lebanon's population has joined the Palestinians in their rovings, while the other half strives to survive under the most precarious of conditions. Syrians, once the pioneers of Arab culture and political thought, live under the permanent fear of meeting the fate of their brethren at Homs and Hama. This inglorious list could go on and on. But this sickening litany is enough to make the obvious point that the present state of affairs in the Arab world is hardly worth spilling any human blood to protect.

This is not to say that it was right for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to invade a peaceful neighbor. Indeed, he must unconditionally allow all those Kuwaitis who fled their country in panic to return to their homes.

It is tragic that Kuwait has fallen victim of a regional and generalized malaise, which if left untreated will spread to other parts of the Arab world and beyond.

Whatever many Arabs might feel about Kuwait, most will admit that Saddam has shaken the area out of its profound state of hypnosis. That act alone is likely to lead to a rallying of Arab nationalists behind Hussein, not because they approve the invasion of one country by another, nor because they approve of his repressive policies at home, but because they disapprove the status quo that his move has endangered.

American support in maintaining that status quo will be seen as siding with the past against the future, as supporting anachronism and standing against the course of history. The present crisis might teach the Americans, like Suez should have taught Britain and France, that the world order is changing.

President Bush's success in mobilizing so much international support against Iraq clearly shows that the United States has the means and the clout to solve any crisis through diplomacy.

How wonderful it would be for the Arab people in particular, and humanity in general, if the United States, the world's leading democracy, would inject the sick body of Arab politics with some of its homemade, tested and cherished medicines: democracy and heavy, very heavy, doses of egalitarianism.

Mohammad Tarbush, a Geneva-based investment banker and writer on current affairs, is the author of "The Role of the Military F in Iraq."

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