It was sadly appropriate, and politically symbolic, that the first military action ordered by the new U.S. president was the attack last week against five Iraqi military targets near Baghdad. The joint move by the United States and Britain continues a decade-old tradition of using airpower to enforce a dubious strategy against the Iraqi regime.
I say "sadly appropriate" because it repeats the record of the Clinton administration, which also made its first military move by attacking Iraqi targets in June of 1993. The fact that the next U.S. administration did the same thing tells us something about the efficacy of such tactics. And the attack is symbolic because we now have George W. Bush perpetuating the policies of his father and Bill Clinton, both of whom were unable to find a way to move beyond military air strikes in dealing with Iraq.
It has been 10 years since the Persian Gulf war, and it's just days before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell returns to the region, where, a decade ago, he commanded the forces that achieved victory over Iraq.
Last week's Anglo-American attack is another sign that such unilateral militarism, combined with a harsh economic embargo against Iraq, is only partially successful. It may prevent Iraq from attacking Kuwait, but, in most other ways, such tactics work against long-term American and British interests in the region and do not address the underlying issues that remain relevant, long after the gulf war.
Last week's attack was presented in the United States as a "defensive" act required to protect U.S. and British pilots "enforcing" the "no fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq. But these zones have no legitimacy in international law, and are not mandated by the United Nations.
The U.S. and British planes are nothing less than old-fashioned imperial outposts in modern, high-tech clothing. Since the Iraqi defensive systems that were targeted were around the capital, Baghdad, and not near the zones themselves, the Anglo-American message is that Iraq should not be allowed to defend itself. Even some of the partners in the Western industrialized world are embarrassed by last week's action, and some of them openly criticized it.
The double irony is that, while the Anglo-American attacks enter their second decade, the Iraqi leadership remains in place with its same attitudes, its support among the Arab world remains strong and may be growing, and there is little likelihood that the UN and Iraq can agree on re-establishing the inspections system that was designed to ensure that Baghdad does not produce or deploy weapons of mass destruction.
These attacks may be important for the political needs of the U.S. and British leaders, but they have little direct relation to promoting long-term stability in the Middle East. They probably do the opposite, by increasing sympathy for Iraq, by increasing the vulnerability of Iraq's small neighbours and their dependence on foreign protection, and by increasing anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments in the region.
More and more voices are now heard asking why Washington and London, supported by Ottawa and others, are willing to use military force to implement UN resolutions in Iraq and in Kosovo but are not prepared to countenance such action when it comes to implementing UN resolutions that, say, prohibit the building or expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Arab lands. This is a very live and large issue in the minds of the Arab people, and it will not go away simply because it is annoying to U.S., British and Israeli leaders.
Colin Powell will visit a Middle East next week that is plagued by problems of autocracy, mismanagement, corruption and disparity. But our region also suffers from the continuing problem of being subjected to the double standards of foreign powers that have come to this area for several centuries and used their military power almost at will. The fact that the U.S. and British governments still need to make routine military attacks against an Iraqi leadership whose defiance strikes a chord among most of the Arab World suggests that we are not dealing simply with a bad guy in Baghdad who needs to be beaten up.
The people in much of the Middle East see things differently. They agree that Iraq used morally unacceptable and politically repugnant policies a decade ago when it attacked Kuwait, but they believe that the Americans and British are using equally unacceptable policies today in their continued attempt to destroy an Arab capital that has been a power in this area for more years than the United States.
Rami Khouri, a former editor of the Jordan Times, is a Palestinian journalist based in Amman.
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