Tribune leader, 17 August 1990

It would be a mistake to rush to condemn the unilateral decision of the United States President, George Bush, to send substantial American forces to the Gulf. Iraqi armour, having swept through Kuwait, was massing on the border of Saudi Arabia. If Saddam Hussein did not intend to invade, there was no way of telling. By the time a credible United Nations force could have been assembled, the Iraqis could easily have over-run Saudi Arabia and perhaps gone further. President Bush’s action made it clear that Saddam’s particu¬larly vicious police state would not be allowed to exercise power over any more territory than it already controlled. That is welcome, even though it is largely a by-product of the American’s attempts to secure oil supplies.

Nevertheless, the current situation is fraught with danger. Having shifted so much military hardware so fast, the Amer¬icans and their allies now have a much more difficult task, which is to avoid using it. Although his forces are technically inferior, particularly in the air, Saddam Hussein is too heavily armed to be easily beaten by military means. He has large stocks of nerve gas, and has shown, both in the decade-long war with Iran and in his attempted genocide of the Kurds, that he is not ashamed to use it.

He also has the ballistic missiles to deliver conventional or chemical warheads over long range. If Iraq is attacked, Sad¬dam will retaliate — not just against soldiers, sailors and airmen, dehydrating but safe in their chemical warfare suits, but also against the unprotected civilians of Jerusalem, Damascus and Riyadh. In such an eventuality, it is not difficult to imagine that the Americans or the Israelis punishing Iraq with a nuclear strike. If Saddam moves first, the outcome will be no less disastrous.

Escalation of the current stand-off to full-scale war is, in short, almost too horrific to contemplate. The Americans and their allies, along with the rest of the world, must do every¬thing in their power to keep the pressure on Saddam without resorting to war. Given the reliance of the Iraqi economy on oil exports, a carefully enforced trade embargo will soon begin to bite. The danger is that what the US Navy sees as careful enforcement will be taken as provocation by Iraq.

Sitting tight and letting the sanctions do the work is not, however, enough. If the unilateral American intervention was necessary, it has also stirred up a hornets’ nest in the Arab world. Arab opinion has been firmly anti-American for years — and with reason. Since it took from Britain the role of dominant imperial power in the region, America’s Middle East policy has consisted of backing Israel through thick and thin, while propping up corrupt and despotic Arab allies and defending its oil interests.

Not so long ago, that meant supporting Iraq against Iran, doing as much business as possible with Iraq and ignoring both the brutality of Saddam’s regime and his radical populist pan-Arabist rhetoric. Now Saddam is the gravest threat to Amer¬ican hegemony in the Middle East. Long viewed with indulg¬ence by the poor of the Arab world, not least for his support for the Palestinians, Saddam now appears to many Arabs as a saviour, the first leader in living memory with the guts to stand up to imperialism.

This will not really be changed by the Americans’ success in getting Syria, Egypt and Morocco to send troops to Saudi Arabia — although moves to make the forces arrayed against Iraq genuinely multinational, preferably under the command of the United Nations, could defuse a little of the popular resentment at the Americans’ action. The problem facing the Americans is much deeper. Until the Americans cease to shore up Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and until they stop backing corrupt plutocracies in the Arab world, the “man on horseback” will always find ready support among Arabs. Saddam Hussein might well be starved out within months but, unless America’s Middle East policy changes, there will be plenty more Saddam Husseins in the future.

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