Just the beginning


WHAT will the postwar Middle East look like? With American forces deep inside Iraq, this question is beginning to get the attention it should have received before the war began.

For some, the answer is simple. Having always seen this conflict in black and white terms, they presume that it must end with the defeat of evil, personified by the Iraqi leader, and the triumph of good, represented by the United States. President Bush's uncompromising rhetoric since August indicated not only that he and his closest advisers saw things in these terms, but also that they were willing to settle for no less than the elimination of the Iraqi regime and its military.

For others, including most of those with extensive knowledge of the Middle East, the answer is not so simple. They wonder how the Iraqi regime and its leader are to be toppled in order for Bush to have the trophy he has gone to war to obtain. There is no basis for the assumption that after Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq have been defeated, the rest of the army will simply fold up, or the Baath regime will simply collapse. Imposing a government on Iraq is not likely to be easy. This task has tested outsiders throughout Iraq's history. The last army to devastate Baghdad, that of the Mongols in 1258, still lives in infamy. This should discourage the notion that the United States will be able to count on a reservoir of local popularity in this endeavor.

Thus, any attempt to occupy Iraq or to impose a regime on the country will sooner or later fail. A much better approach, one that is more likely to lead Iraq toward democracy, is to leave the Iraqis to bring their own leaders to account after this fiasco, and to help rebuild the country after the devastation the United States has wrought (unlikely though this is in American domestic terms).

This leads to the question of how the Arab world will regard the United States in years to come. Before the ground war began, attitudes toward the United States were marked by a certain NTC ambivalence. While there was resentment at the degree of devastation wrought by the air war, it was tempered by a recognition that Iraq was wrong in invading Kuwait, and that the allies were at least partially justified in their actions, sanctioned as these were by U.N. Security Council resolutions. But after the U.S. rejection of the Soviet peace plan, which could have led to the peaceful liberation of Kuwait, whatever legitimacy U.S. actions enjoyed in the eyes of most Arabs disappeared. To many, the launching of a ground attack immediately afterward seemed gratuitous and substantiated the contention that America's objective was to destroy Iraq and its armed forces, with Iraq's aggression against Kuwait simply providing a convenient pretext.

Arab attitudes toward the United States will thus be determined by a sense of grievance over the crushing of Iraq, which will be seen by most Arabs as out of all proportion to its universally condemned transgressions against Kuwait. They will also be affected by how the United States deals with Iraq in the postwar era. The final determinant, and perhaps the decisive one, will be American policy on the Palestine question.

It may be argued that it doesn't matter what people in the Arab world think of the United States: Americans know that they are right and strong enough to impose their will on those who disagree. It may well be that Arab grievances over the devastation wrought by 95,000 allied air sorties, directed mainly against targets in the cities and towns of Iraq, will eventually be forgotten without leaving lasting scars. And perhaps the United States will avoid succumbing to its long-standing tendency to meddle in other people's domestic affairs (always justified, of course, by the highest moral purposes), and will leave the Iraqis to their own devices after the war. But the United States will at its peril ignore the Arab-Israeli conflict after the gulf war.

If the United States continues to ignore Security Council resolutions on that conflict (242, 338 and 334), on Jerusalem (10 resolutions), the other occupied Palestinian territories (five resolutions), occupied southern Lebanon (three resolutions) and the Golan Heights (one resolution), after using similar resolutions on Kuwait to legitimate war on Iraq, it will not simply be guilty of gross hypocrisy. The United States will be doing grave damage to international law and to the United Nations, showing it to be no more than a convenient cover for whatever it wants to do.

Such hypocrisy will undermine the generally unpopular and undemocratic Arab regimes that went along with the United States in this adventure. They did so cynically, with eyes open, and in expectation of political and material advantage; but their domestic public opinion will not forgive them for acting at the behest of the United States if afterward it still refuses implementation of the plethora of Security Council resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict that were passed over a period of 23 years.

On this score and on others, the end of the war will not mean that the United States can expect to bask in the glow of victory. Indeed, to all the unsolved problems in the Middle East left over from before the war will be added new ones the war has created. In the words of the eminent French Orientalist Jacques Berque: "We still haven't understood that colonial wars have a particular nature: to win them is worse than to lose them. And the more overwhelming the victory, the worse it is."

Rashid I. Khalidi teaches Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago.

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