Rudderless in the Storm

Rudderless in the Storm

Arab Politics Before and After the Iraq War

While the United States and Britain are engaged in a heated debate regarding the official explanations and justifications offered for the war on Iraq, no similar soul searching has occurred in the Arab world. Arab rulers have little to say about the dismal failure of their diplomacy and their inability to act in a way that would have put the interests of the Iraqi people over those of Saddam Hussein. On the eve of the war, Arab politicians fretted over merely tactical issues-whether to publicize their opposition to the U.S.-led war or to pin the blame on Hussein-rather than helping Iraqis rid themselves of a tyrannical regime.

Inter-Arab diplomacy was more of a public relations exercise than a concerted effort at resolving the crisis. Words were substituted for actions. The Iraqi crisis has added weight to the accusation that Arabs are zahira sawtiya (a merely polemical phenomenon), taken seriously by neither friend nor foe. Regardless of whether the ruling elites appreciated the gravity of the crisis and its potential repercussions on regional order, their inaction highlighted not only the splits within their ranks but also their moral bankruptcy.

The old order was crumbling before their eyes. Yet Arab leaders buried their heads in the sand, hoping that the storm would pass with minimum damage to their autocratic rule. No serious thought was given to taking the lead in trying to force Saddam Hussein out of power, thus forestalling the U.S. war and sparing the Iraqi people. Given the obsessive determination of the Bush administration to go to war against Saddam’s regime, the Arabs could not have it both ways: saving both the regime and Iraq’s suffering population. They failed to make a clear decision to help the people and so sided indirectly with Saddam.

To act on behalf of the people would have required both visionary leadership, a willingness to take risks, and a tough political realism-traits in short supply in the Arab world. What transpired instead on the diplomatic scene were vacuous formalities, procrastination, recrimination, and inaction: in other words, stasis. Arab rulers proved true to the norm, speaking in double-tongued proclamations and innuendoes to their own populations and the world. They publicly swore by the Almighty to oppose the coming war, while privately feigning impotence and promising to support their superpower patron. Never mind that they didn’t test or maximize their bargaining power as Turkey did. Never mind that they didn’t level with their citizens about being beholden to Washington and about Saddam Hussein’s numbered days. A convincing argument could have been made that Hussein must go for the sake of the Iraqi people and the survival of their state-not just because the White House aimed at the destruction of the Baath regime.

But to ask for forethought would have been asking too much of a cynical, hardened lot who have survived for so long by ma...