U.S. “Leadership” and the Shattered Gulf Coalition

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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 international coalition that supported U.S. policy during the Persian Gulf War. That failure, according to such critics as Senator Don Nickles, Republican of Oklahoma, and the Wall Street Journal, was the result of a growing lack of confidence in Washington’s (or more precisely, Clinton’s) leadership.

That the Gulf War coalition no longer exists is virtually beyond dispute. International backing for Washington’s latest confrontation with Saddam Hussein was conspicuously meager. Only Britain gave early and enthusiastic support. Germany, Japan, Israel, and Kuwait offered belated and cautious endorsements of the U.S. raids. The other relevant European and Middle East countries either remained silent or openly condemned Washington’s actions.

The paucity of international support, however, 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 among the Middle East states that the United States counts as allies. It was notable that such key regional powers as Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused to give Washington permission to use bases on their territory for raids against Iraq. Other countries in the region apparently refused to grant overflight rights. (Such opposition was the main reason the B‐​52s carrying cruise missiles had to come all the way from Guam.)

Many Americans seem puzzled and angry that the principal beneficiaries of U.S. protection have been so uncooperative. There are three apparent reasons for the recalcitrance of Washington’s alleged friends in the Persian Gulf region.

The most important reason for their reluctance to support the latest round of coercion against Saddam is that the gulf states fear Iran far more than they do Iraq. Gulf leaders are worried that if the United States continues to weaken Iraq politically and militarily, the only significant regional strategic counterweight to Iran may collapse, creating a massive power vacuum that would prove irresistibly tempting to Tehran. It is revealing that 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 afforded Shi’ite secessionists in southern Iraq. From the perspective of Iran’s neighbors, a policy that undermines Iraq’s territorial integrity risks furthering Tehran’s agenda.

The second important factor is that the gulf states are uneasy about endorsing the proposition that the use of force by a government within its own territory constitutes “aggression” that can justify an international military response. Clinton’s warning to Saddam that “when you abuse your own people … you must pay a price,” likely alarmed more capitals than Baghdad. Given their egregious human rights records, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and other Middle East countries are understandably reluctant to endorse that standard for intervention in a nation’s internal affairs. Several of those states also have restless ethnic or religious minorities–some with secessionist objectives. (Turkey, for example, has been waging a bloody struggle for more than a decade to suppress rebellious Kurds in the southeastern portion of the country.) Washington’s implied support of Kurdish separatism in Iraq, therefore, sets a precedent that is unlikely to win applause from many Middle East rulers.

Finally, gulf state governments worry that endorsing U.S. attacks on a fellow Arab country may further antagonize domestic populations who are already displeased about Washington’s dominance in the region. Indeed, the U.S. military presence is fast becoming a lightning rod for political opponents of the incumbent regimes. The bombing of the U.S. barracks in Dhahran and other attacks on American military personnel in Saudi Arabia are the most prominent examples of that reaction.

Dissidents throughout the Middle East already portray many of the current leaders as lackeys of the United States. Several of the regimes that Washington considers friendly to U.S. interests, including those in Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain, have a precarious grip on power. Even the stability of Saudi Arabia is increasingly doubtful. The last thing that such beleaguered governments want to do is strengthen their political enemies by endorsing the unpopular U.S. military assaults on Iraq.

Contrary to Clinton’s critics, none of those motives is likely to be negated by the exercise of U.S. “leadership.” It is a manifestation of national arrogance to assume that whatever happens in the world must inevitably be the result of America’s action or inaction. Other countries have interests and objectives that often run contrary to Washington’s policy preferences, and they will act accordingly. The Persian Gulf states may want U.S. protection from their adversaries, but they are also willing to remain neutral or even denounce the United States whenever that course seems convenient.

Americans should not expect gratitude, much less obedience, from such “friends.” Nor should they 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 one.