Arafat's Return Represents Saddam Hussein's Legacy


And so Yasser Arafat has claimed his Palestine, marked it with his hasty footprints, and left again.

In his speech through the dusty haze on the Square of the Unknown Soldier last week, there were thanks to the martyrs and the stone-throwers. There was no word of thanks to the man who brought him to Gaza -- Saddam Hussein.

Short and chaotic as Mr. Arafat's visit was, it showed the unthinkable made real, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, with green fatigues and holstered pistol, standing on a corner of his homeland in broad daylight.

Contrary to the cynicism of many in the Arab press last weekend, it was a visit the Israelis had the technical wherewithal, but not the power, to prevent.

More than that, it showed that the day has come when the contemporary history of the Middle East must be dated in a new way. This calendar divides on a single moment of decision by a single man. There is Before Kuwait and After Kuwait.

The present era, A.K., began without wise men or unusual stars in the pre-dawn of August 2, 1990, when the president of Iraq ordered his weary army across a line into the small emirate to his south, setting in motion events whose pattern of effects we now discern.

Mr. Hussein's role in moving history to this point will bring small consolation to the Iraqi people, with the exception perhaps of the Kurdish chieftains, currently more autonomous -- for all their seeming determination to make the worst of a good thing -- than at any period for 20 years.

Outside his borders, however, a landscape has formed upon which (under other circumstances) a Nobel Peace Prize committee might look with favor.

Mr. Hussein has, for a start, been instrumental in the restoration of democracy to Kuwait. This change is typical of his recent achievements in the surrounding region, in that it stems from a factor crucially and nakedly exposed by the war he initiated with the Kuwait invasion -- the weakness of the existing order.

The mass flight of Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah family discredited at a stroke those who had dissolved an elected parliament in 1986 and kept the essentials of the constitution suspended ever since. Strengthened by that social restiveness which accompanies the end of any war, the whip hand passed to the challengers of the al-Sabahs.

The parliament which now sits, demanding and argumentative, in Kuwait City has, in a real sense, the man in Baghdad as its founder. The same holds true, and for broadly similar reasons, for the "shura," Saudi Arabia's first consultative council for almost 60 years, appointed by King Fahd after two decades of unkept promises last August -- thanks to the midwifery of Saddam Hussein.

The clay feel of the ruling orders, when it comes to competence to govern and political legitimacy, are just parts of the reality exposed, and altered, by Mr. Hussein's war. The conflict also changed the economics of the Persian Gulf and of states to its north.

Fluctuating oil prices have contributed, but the shock of deficit budgets began hitting home in earnest with the arrival of massive war debts. Hoping to forestall the popular threat to themselves that belt-tightening will bring, rulers around the gulf -- and particularly in the war's front-line states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- are looking for those budget cuts which will least antagonize the man in the street.

Their eyes are falling on the merchants of high-tech weaponry -- nTC and with good reason, because the war laid bare what everybody involved had long tried to disguise: the inability of the purchasers to use most of these multi-million-dollar machines in the hour of greatest need. In forcing these governments to think of putting their people's daily interests first, before those of our arms dealers or their commission-skimming princelings, Saddam Hussein has set off a very overdue re-examination.

The economic impact of the war profoundly affected Jordan, formerly living on the back of Iraq's oil wealth and the remittances of the Palestinian diaspora in the gulf. Importantly, it brought home to King Hussein the political frailty of a monarchy that could suddenly be held hostage to the pro-Iraq emotions of the Palestinian majority within Jordan's frontiers.

Last November, therefore, Mr. Hussein became godfather to yet another election aimed at broadening the base of political and fiscal responsibility, when Jordan held its first multi-party poll since 1956. However, this was but a sideshow to the Iraqi leader's most remarkable achievement.

It is now half-forgotten that, during the early months of his occupation of Kuwait, he pressed -- probably genuinely, since it was his only way out with honor -- for "linkage" between an Iraqi withdrawal and a Western commitment to solve the Palestinian problem. Such was the impact of the war on the regional order that this link has now been made, even in defeat.

Yet when the Israel-PLO agreement on self-rule was signed under the satisfied eye of Bill Clinton by the Potomac last September, there was no chair for its chief instigator, that other president far away on the Tigris.

Even at this remove, Yasser Arafat;s decision to support Iraq during the gulf conflict must evoke a perverse admiration. Not because it was morally right but because -- in a region where power relies closely on the checkbook -- his lunatic stance shut off, overnight, the main sources of PLO funding.

Mr. Arafat declared his allegiance publicly, within the first fortnight after the Iraqi invasion. In that allegiance, and in the popular support it enjoyed in the occupied territories and Jordan, there was certainly a great underpinning of racism, the unconcealed contempt among most northern Arabs toward those in the gulf. The president of Iraq wanted what Kuwait had; it was quite in order for him to take it.

Then defeat loomed. It remains a testament to Mr. Hussein that, in his darkest days, his powers of imagery were still such as to induce Mr. Arafat and many of the Palestinian lemming masses to swarm over the precipice to financial ruin.

It was that bankruptcy which, more than anything else (certainly more than Mr. Hussein's skewed, and largely ineffective, Scud missiles) forced the PLO leader to take the only course that might preserve himself and his Fatah faction: securing a bridgehead back to Palestine, through once-unthinkable compromises with Israel.

There has been no great prescience at work here on anyone's part, no grand Arab design, no guiding Western conspiracy, just a moment of delusion by a dictator. But -- though they may be unintended and paradoxical -- these, in truth, are the works of Saddam Hussein.

Leslie Plommer is managing editor for foreign news of The

Guardian in England, from which this is reprinted.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad