Last week the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, long-time allies of the United
States, publicly warned the Bush administration against invading Iraq to bring
about "regime change". The normally phlegmatic Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak,
cautioned that the deaths of many innocent Iraqis, on top of the continuing killings
of Palestinians, could destabilize the whole region. Declaring that it was up
to the Iraqi people to decide the fate of Saddam Hussein, the Saudi foreign minister,
Saud al-Faisal, forecast that attempts to overthrow him from the outside would
But the hawks in the Bush administration, who are in effective control of US
policy in the Middle East, are ignoring such warnings. "It is less important to
have unanimity than it is to be making the right decisions and doing the right
thing," said the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. By destabilizing Iraq
and the region, and spawning recruits for extremism, Islamist and secular, the
hawks' "right thing" may well prove disastrous not merely for America but also
for the rest of the Western world.
In contrast to the attitude of today's hawks, President George Herbert Walker
Bush, father of the present commander-in-chief, noted the refusal of 13 Arab and
Muslim members of the US-led coalition to march into Iraq in the Gulf War. They
argued, rightly, that the United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 called
for the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, not the overthrow of President Saddam.
This was one of the main reasons why President Bush Sr decided against capturing
Baghdad. Had the armies of the US, Britain and France marched to the Iraqi capital
on their own, they would have been labeled neo-imperialists and opposed by Iraqis
and other Arabs and Muslims.
The stance of Mr Mubarak and Prince Saud al-Faisal today is consistent and
logical, for what they have done is to reiterate the collective position of the
22-member Arab League, hammered out at its summit in March. Its final communiqué
warned against "exploitation of war on terrorism to threaten any Arab country
and use of force against Iraq". It also praised the 18-month-old Palestinian intifada
against the Israeli occupation, and pledged financial aid to the suffering Palestinians.
Therein lies the key to understand the position that even the most pro-American
Arab leaders have adopted on Iraq. Their failure so far to help bring an end to
the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories or get Washington to rectify
its over-indulgent attitude towards Israel has severely undermined their legitimacy
at home. For these leaders, to yield to Washington's pressure and participate
or even co-operate on the margins in an invasion of Iraq, a fellow
Arab country, would amount to committing political suicide.
A classified opinion survey conducted by the Saudi interior ministry on the
eve of the US-led air strikes against Afghanistan on 7 October showed 95 per cent
of educated Saudis in the 28-41 age group agreeing with Osama bin Laden's viewpoint.
The images of that war, carried by al-Jazeera and other Arabic-language satellite
channels, further hardened anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.
Arab leaders are well aware that anti-American feeling has spread to all sections
of their societies, from peasants to princes, from domestic servants to university
dons. In an unprecedented move, ordinary people in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere
in the Arab world have translated their hatred of the US into a boycott of American
"We are deleting everything that relates to America," said Samir Nasier, the
owner of a fast-food chain in Saudi Arabia. "We share the same outraged feelings
of our Saudi customers towards the attitude of the American administration towards
Israel." Little wonder that, during the first six months of this year, US exports
to Saudi Arabia plummeted by one-third.
Were the Bush administration to repeat its Afghan military performance in Iraq
deploying up to 250,000 troops on land, sea and air with the concomitant
loss of thousands of civilian lives and massive damage to Iraqi public and private
property, it would daily provide hours of visual record of the carnage to tens
of millions of Arabs and Muslims. One can well imagine how popular feeling in
the Arab and Muslim states would be inflamed and the destabilizing consequences
if that sentiment were to escalate into street rioting and attacks on Western
targets in those countries.
The key difference between now and the Gulf War is that in 1990-91 the Arab
governments had a monopoly over the broadcasting channels and most of the print
media. That was how King Fahd of Saudi Arabia managed to suppress the news about
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the kingdom's print and broadcast media for 100 hours.
Today such a scenario is unthinkable.
Beyond these practicalities, and the imperative need not to adopt policies
that are diametrically opposed to popular opinion at home, the leaders of the
pro-American Arab regimes are prescient enough to reckon that Washington's "regime
change" agenda would not stop with Iraq. They have noticed that, having achieved
"regime change" in Afghanistan, President Bush extended this doctrine to the Palestinians
with his call for the replacement of Yasser Arafat.
After Saddam Hussein, it will be the turn of the mullahs in Iran, a member
of the Iraq-Iran-North Korea Axis of Evil, they rightly surmise. Washington will
implement this not-so-hidden agenda under the rubric of "democratization" of the
Middle East, despite the fact that since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran,
there have been 22 elections and referendums always with a multiple choice
for the parliament, presidency, local government and the Assembly of Experts.
After Iran will come Syria, one of the seven countries that support international
terrorism, according to the US State Department. And that surge of "democratization",
fueled by the Bush administration's neo-conservatives more appropriately
neo-imperialists will then bring about "regime change" in Riyadh, followed
Nobody in the West denies that a democratic change in the Arab world is overdue.
The question is: how is it to be brought about? Should it be imposed by a foreign
conquering army or should it come from within? If democracy is delivered to Iraqis
by Americans in tanks and helicopters, then the local people and other Arabs will
perceive it as yet another defeat by their nemesis, the Israeli-American nexus.
That would unveil a new and bloody chapter of US military occupation of humiliated
and resentful peoples.
The other alternative is to encourage the trend towards a representative government
that is already in train in the oil-rich Gulf states. Since 1999 direct elections
for municipalities and the national consultative councils on the basis of adult
franchise have been held or scheduled in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. Kuwait has had
parliament elected on a limited franchise since its independence in 1961.
The major exception is Saudi Arabia. There the consultative council remains
fully nominated by the monarch. Mr Bush and his team should be advising Crown
Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, to have the council members elected by popular
vote and for them to be given legislative and budgetary powers they now lack.
But they are not doing so. For they know well that in a free and fair election
Saudi voters would choose those who want to remove the kingdom from under the
wings of the American eagle.
If, rejecting the advice of such friends as President Mubarak, Crown Prince
Abdullah and, lately, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, the Bush administration
invades Iraq, it would push the world inexorably toward the much-dreaded clash
of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, with grave consequences
for us all.
Dilip Hiro is the author of 'War Without End: the Rise of Islamist Terrorism
and Global Response' (Routledge)
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd