As the Bush administration develops its policies toward the world's most volatile region, it finds the Arabs who make up a great majority of the Middle East's population in a heightened state of distress. Two very similar issues are of particular concern-the suffering of Iraqis and the suffering of Palestinians.
As Arabs see it, Iraqis have fallen into a state of deep poverty due to American-enforced economic sanctions that began almost 11 years ago. Iraq's per-capita income has dropped to just 10% of what it was at its height in 1980, which makes for perhaps the most sustained economic decline of our time. While caloric intake of food remains reasonably good, the downward spiral into penury of this once-bourgeois people has been terrible for Iraqis to experience and for other Arabic speakers to witness.
The Palestinians' economic woes are more recent and less serious, but their collapse has perhaps even greater resonance. For here it is Israel-regarded by Arabs as their biggest enemy-that has turned the economic screws. Not only can the Palestinians not get to jobs in Israel, but mobility is altogether restricted between their own areas, interrupting the flow of goods and services. As a result, incomes have fallen by about one-third.
In both cases, the anger of Arabic speakers across the Middle East is palpable, as evidenced by survey research, public demonstrations, economic boycotts, political rhetoric, and even pop culture (a song called "I Hate Israel" tops the Egyptian music charts these days). The two problems also touch on something deeper-an Arab fear of a vast Western conspiracy against them.
The resulting sense of grievance represents a powerful force obstructing Washington's efforts to contain Iraq and solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Arab leaders met earlier this week, they talked almost nonstop about Iraq and the Palestinians, and little else. Inevitably, this meant much hostility against the U.S. and its ally, Israel. From an American point of view, of course, things look quite different. As we see it, Iraqi and Palestinian suffering results not from Western perfidy but from the actions of their own cynical and ambitious leaders.
Saddam Hussein, the totalitarian dictator of Iraq, wants nothing less than to be a major global power. He sees two ways to achieve this: by controlling the vastly important oil resources in his proximity, and by deploying weapons of mass destruction. This ambition explains why he invaded two neighbors (Iran and Kuwait) and launched missiles against two others (Saudi Arabia and Israel); it also accounts for the huge resources he devotes to weapons.
But all his efforts have so far ended in disaster. Since 1990, Saddam has faced an array of sanctions. Resuming his march toward global power requires their removal. And the way to do that, he has found, is by winning world sympathy for the harm they do to his population. And if the sanctions don't really harm them that much-they are so riddled with loopholes that one could comfortably drive a supertanker through them-he makes sure that they appear to. Although Iraq sells as much oil as it can produce, Saddam spends the billions in revenues not on people but on his arsenal. With the change, he builds himself a few extra palaces.
As the decades-long career of this totalitarian thug shows, he will inflict as much suffering on Iraqis as is necessary for him to further his goals. In the past this meant waging a campaign of genocide against the Kurds; today it involves impoverishing the Iraqi people because that pressures the U.S. to lift the remaining controls on Iraq. It's simple and it's crude, but it works. The misery of Iraqis directly helps Saddam enhance his power.
Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, harbors no such global ambitions, but his program is also pretty bold: Destroy Israel and replace it with a Palestinian state.
Last summer, Israel offered the Palestinians an exceedingly generous settlement that required Mr. Arafat only to accept the permanent existence of the Jewish state. This, however, was something he could not do. So the Israeli offer had the unintended effect of exposing the full extent of Palestinian hostility.
What next? For Mr. Arafat, direct negotiations with Israel had served their purpose, creating the Palestinian Authority, which he heads. But the Palestinian Authority is an unfinished piece of work, enjoying only some perquisites of sovereignty and sitting alongside of Israel, not on top of it. How was Mr. Arafat to further the Palestinian agenda?
The answer was not long in coming. Mr. Arafat instructed his armed agents to resume the battle by attacking Israelis. He brandished the resulting Palestinian casualties and economic collapse as a way to fire up emotions. Much of the outside world dutifully responded with pressure on Israel. Mr. Arafat has found himself a new way to fight his life-long enemy. When the first George Bush handed the White House keys to Bill Clinton, Washington had good working relations with Arab states in both the Iraqi and Arab-Israeli theaters. Unfortunately, as Mr. Clinton handed those keys to the second George Bush, he turned over a set of relationships with the Arab states that are in complete disarray.
The new administration has already implemented two excellent policy changes concerning the Middle East: a focus on containing Iraq and a retreat from Arab-Israeli negotiations. Iraq presents alarming dangers while Israel's relations with its neighbors are clearly not ripe for solution. Iraq demands taking the initiative; the Arab-Israeli conflict requires more time. Trouble is, this sensible approach goes directly against the wishes of the Arab states. Given that Arab and American views are almost diametrically opposed, the Bush administration has its work cut out in repairing the mischief of the past eight years.