As America gets closer to initiating hostilities against Saddam Hussein's foul regime in Iraq, the Middle East is sending out a howl of protest, arguing that (as the Washington Post sums it up) "the risks of an attack . . . far outweigh any threat he may pose."
This view is surprising, to put it mildly, ignoring as it does Saddam's record of brutality toward his subjects and aggression toward his neighbors, not to speak of his terrifying ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. The outlook derives from several factors:
- A sense of immunity: Most Middle Easterners "do not fear Iraq at all," observes Radwan 'Abdullah, former dean of political science at Jordan University. A 20-year-old vendor in Cairo has the strange idea that the problem is "between America and Iraq, and we [Egyptians] don't have anything to do with it."
- A fear of the unknown: The prospect of Iraq splitting up or suffering total economic collapse worries its neighbors. Jordan's King Abdullah anticipates that "striking Iraq represents a catastrophe to Iraq and the region in general and threatens the security and stability of the region." Turkey's prime minister, Bülent Ecevit, fears an attack on Iraq on the narrow grounds that this "will seriously affect" his country at a time when its economy rests "on very sensitive balances."
- An alienation from America: Middle Easterners who want Saddam gone distance themselves from Washington's policy lest they, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, appear to be "U.S. lackeys." This applies even to Kuwaitis.
- An admiration for Saddam. Radwan 'Abdullah notes: "Many Arab countries do not fear Iraq at all. On the contrary, they want Iraq stronger." They root for him defying the hated West.
Middle Easterners are not unique here. Much of the world, led by the French, Russian and Chinese governments, concurs, leaving only the British, Israelis and Iraq's opposition firmly supporting American threats to finish off Saddam.
An anti-Saddam strategy, therefore, must accept that Washington may basically have to go it alone. This is less than ideal, but it is doable. And it prompts three observations.
First, such isolation is not new, for Washington routinely goes it alone on a host of issues. It was the lone dissenter in a 118-1 vote at the United Nations General Assembly in 1981 favoring a code to restrict the promotion of infant-formula products. More recently, the Bush administration single-handedly scuttled the Kyoto climate treaty of 1997, which called for drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The war against the Taliban last fall was nearly a solo performance, too.
As a White House spokesman rightly explained in 1996: "We may be in a minority of one, but we're going to stand by our position. Sometimes you're the only country taking a particular view on an issue but you stand by it because you have to stand by it."
Second, defeating Iraq should be militarily easy. Kenneth Adelman, a former assistant to Donald Rumsfeld, predicts that a war against Iraqis will be a "cakewalk," and offers four reasons: "1) It was a cakewalk last time; 2) they've become much weaker; 3) we've become much stronger; and 4) now we're playing for keeps."
Assuming Adelman is right, U.S. forces acting solo can take control of Iraq without needing the U.N. seal of approval, European troops, Saudi money or Turkish bases. The task would be easier with a little help from friends, but it is not necessary.
Third, if Adelman is wrong and it's not an easy military victory, then U.S. opinion becomes decisive. When a war goes badly, U.S. public opinion can become fickle, affected by such factors as casualties, complacency and a hostile world reaction. American disaffection hamstrung the near-solo American military efforts in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. In strategic terms, public opinion is the U.S. center of gravity, its most vulnerable point.
American planners must therefore keep a close eye on U.S. opinion. Anything that exceeds its bounds risks failure. The fate of Iraq, whether it remains subject to Saddam's depredations or is liberated, may depend as much on the mood of ordinary Americans as it will on the capabilities of American troops.