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

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

It is true that the Gulf War coalition nolonger exists. International backing for the latest Americanconfrontation with Saddam Hussein was conspicuously meager. OnlyBritain gave early support. Germany, Japan, Israel and Kuwaitoffered belated and cautious endorsements. The other relevantEuropean and Middle Eastern countries either remained silent orwere openly critical.

But this lack of international support haslittle to do with American leadership or its absence. A far more importantreason is that other governments believe that U.S. policy towardIraq is misguided, potentially dangerous and undermines their interests.

That attitude is especially prevalent in theMiddle East. Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused to let the Clinton administrationuse bases on their territory for raids against Iraq. Othercountries apparently refused to grant overflight rights.

Many Americans seem puzzled and angry that theprincipal 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 farmore than they do Iraq. They worry that if the United Statescontinues to weaken Hussein politically and militarily, it couldcreate a power vacuum that would prove irresistible to Iran.

Thus none of the governments in the region hasever shown much enthusiasm for Washington's support of the defacto Kurdish state in northern Iraq, or even for the limitedprotection given to Shiite secessionists in the south.

Another factor is that countries withtroublesome human rights records -- including Saudi Arabia andTurkey -- are uneasy about the proposition that the use of forceby a government within its own territory constitutes aggressionthat can justify an international military response. Several ofour allies have restless ethnic or religious minorities withsecessionist objectives and are thus unlikely to applaud theimplied U.S. support of Kurdish separatism in Iraq.

Finally, the gulf states worry that endorsingAmerican attacks on a fellow Arab country may further embolden theirdomestic critics who accuse them of being American lackeys. TheU.S. military presence is a lightning rod for dissidents, asshown recently by the bombing of the American barracks inDhahran.

Governments in Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain have aprecarious grip on power, and even the stability of Saudi Arabiais increasingly doubtful. The last thing such governments want isto strengthen their enemies by endorsing American attacks againstIraq.

A simple display of American"leadership" is unlikely to change the allies' minds.It is arrogance to assume that whatever happens in the world mustbe the result of American action or inaction. The Persian Gulfstates may want protection, but they will remain neutral or evendenounce the United States when it seems necessary.

Americans should not expect gratitude, muchless obedience, from such "friends." Nor should wethink that the Gulf War coalition can be easily reassembled. Ifthe United States insists on being the guardian of the Persian Gulf,it will be a lonely and often resented role.