U.S. Shouldn’t Expect to Galvanize States in Mideast against Iraq

October 30, 1996 • Commentary

Prominent Republicans, while endorsing President Clinton’s decision to launch cruise missiles against Iraq, have caustically noted the president’s failure to hold together the coalition of the Persian Gulf war. That failure, they say, reflects a growing lack of confidence in Washington’s, or more precisely, Clinton’s leadership.

It is true that the Gulf War coalition no longer exists. International backing for the latest American confrontation with Saddam Hussein was conspicuously meager. Only Britain gave early support. Germany, Japan, Israel and Kuwait offered belated and cautious endorsements. The other relevant European and Middle Eastern countries either remained silent or were openly critical.

But this lack of international support has little to do with American leadership or its absence. A far more important reason is that other governments believe that U.S. policy toward Iraq is misguided, potentially dangerous and undermines their interests.

That attitude is especially prevalent in the Middle East. Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused to let the Clinton administration use bases on their territory for raids against Iraq. Other countries apparently refused to grant overflight rights.

Many Americans seem puzzled and angry that the principal beneficiaries of the Gulf War have been so uncooperative. But there are understandable reasons for their recalcitrance. Most important, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states fear Iran far more than they do Iraq. They worry that if the United States continues to weaken Hussein politically and militarily, it could create a power vacuum that would prove irresistible to Iran.

Thus none of the governments in the region has ever shown much enthusiasm for Washington’s support of the de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq, or even for the limited protection given to Shiite secessionists in the south.

Another factor is that countries with troublesome human rights records — including Saudi Arabia and Turkey — are uneasy about the proposition that the use of force by a government within its own territory constitutes aggression that can justify an international military response. Several of our allies have restless ethnic or religious minorities with secessionist objectives and are thus unlikely to applaud the implied U.S. support of Kurdish separatism in Iraq.

Finally, the gulf states worry that endorsing American attacks on a fellow Arab country may further embolden their domestic critics who accuse them of being American lackeys. The U.S. military presence is a lightning rod for dissidents, as shown recently by the bombing of the American barracks in Dhahran.

Governments in Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain have a precarious grip on power, and even the stability of Saudi Arabia is increasingly doubtful. The last thing such governments want is to strengthen their enemies by endorsing American attacks against Iraq.

A simple display of American “leadership” is unlikely to change the allies’ minds. It is arrogance to assume that whatever happens in the world must be the result of American action or inaction. The Persian Gulf states may want protection, but they will remain neutral or even denounce the United States when it seems necessary.

Americans should not expect gratitude, much less obedience, from such “friends.” Nor should we think that the Gulf War coalition can be easily reassembled. If the United States insists on being the guardian of the Persian Gulf, it will be a lonely and often resented role.

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