THE DAMAGE WE ARE DOING TO OUR RELATIONS WITH THE MIDDLE EAST COULD LAST A GENERATION
THE INDEPENDENT - Editorial - 01 April 2003 - In the last weeks of the United Nations' ill-starred diplomacy and the first hours of war, one section of the globe observed an uneasy silence. Hesitant and divided, the Arab world was biding its time. Now, the Arab countries are finding their voice, and their words offer the first warning of the new regional climate that the United States and Britain will face once this conflict is past.
"When it is over, if it is over, this war will have horrible consequences," were the ominous words from Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, yesterday. "Instead of having one Osama bin Laden, we will have 100 Bin Ladens." Mr Mubarak is one of the more moderate Arab leaders.
From Syria to Indonesia, from the West Bank to Morocco and back to Iraq, the warnings are multiplying. The Iraqi regime is threatening more suicide attacks on Allied forces as an integral part of its national defence strategy. An Egyptian drove a lorry into a queue of US troops in Kuwait. Islamic Jihad says that it will increase its attacks in Israeli to demonstrate support for Iraq.
Throughout the region, the streets and markets are seething. There are almost daily demonstrations in Jordan and Egypt. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, utterly vanquished more than a year ago, have begun to mount sporadic attacks. Their long-silent leader, Mullah Omar, has called for a jihad against American troops and Afghans who work with them. And the Qatar-based television station, al-Jazeera, beams out its 24-hour reports from the war zone, more graphic, more culturally accessible, less apologetic than anything the BBC or CNN provides.
The alliance ranged against Iraq may, as US officials insist, be more numerous than the one that fought the Gulf War 12 years ago. But the Arab countries that supported that war are now conspicuously absent. Those, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia that are assisting the so-called coalition, are doing so with utmost discretion. Among the entirely predictable effects of their involvement will be to strengthen conservative, theocratic elements at the expense of the very democratic reforms the US and Britain insist they are hoping for.
All the omens suggest that Mr Mubarak is right. When the war is over, the consequences will indeed be disastrous. It is hard to see how American and British relations with the countries of the region can be mended during our lifetime.
Two naïve attempts were made at the outset to limit the damage. Our governments promised faithfully that they were not waging war on the people of Iraq, only on the tyrannical ruler who was hated by the Iraqis themselves; we were not going to be conquerors, but liberators. And because our governments believed that they were waging war on behalf of Iraq's people, they promised also to minimise civilian casualties.
Had Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party been "decapitated" in the first air strikes, those guiding principles might not now sound as insubstantial, even hypocritical, as they do. There might have been just a slim chance for the Allied troops to be welcomed as the liberators they hoped to be. The uncomfortable reality, however, is that after less than two weeks of war, the Allied troops are regarded across the region as invaders, and Iraq's despotic President as a patriot.
This reversal is potentially the biggest and longest-lasting defeat of this war – the enormity of which has been at least partially grasped in London, but in Washington, it seems, hardly at all. War may not be the ideal time to start planning to win back friends and influence people. But there is good reason not to alienate still further those whose acquiescence you may need before the inevitably difficult post-war settlement. Washington's very public upbraiding of Syria and Iran could well return to haunt the United States. It accused Syria of helping Saddam Hussein's war effort, Iran of seeking to obtain illegal weapons of its own. Both issued angry denials. That both accusations were made at a reception for American Jews only signalled to the Arab world where US loyalties lay.
Mr Blair's approach has been altogether more forward-looking and sensitive. Ministers are encouraged to appear on al-Jazeera and other Arab stations. The Government understands the importance of communicating the message, abroad – as at home. Mr Blair also understands that one of the obstacles to communicating with the Arab world is the unresolved Palestinian issue. By calling for the publication of the "road-map" to Middle East peace at every opportunity, Mr Blair, at least, signals that he is aware of Arab priorities.
But he faces a conundrum. To his evident vexation, he has still not won the argument for war at home; how can he win the argument abroad? What is more, his efforts to show that he can see another side of the argument are constantly frustrated by the clumsy and ignorant approach of Washington. The longer it takes to remove Saddam Hussein and the more desperately Iraqis fight – for their homeland, if not for the regime – the less likely it appears that the principle of avoiding civilian casualties will endure. And Mr Blair's efforts to show "evenhandedness" between Iraq and the Middle East are not matched by a willingness on Mr Bush's part. The "road-map" remains unpublished.
The war will be won. Mr Bush's all-American determination will ensure that it is. But the cost in Arab resentment and global insecurity may be considerably higher than even Mr Mubarak fears.