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Saddam plays the game to win.

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq last month made a televised address condemning Iran and warning the Arab world that Tehran seeks to establish a new "Persian empire" in the region "under the cover of Islamic slogans". It may well be a nonsensical analysis, although the somewhat tenuous hold on power enjoyed by Iran's President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani leaves open the possibility of a resurgent radical influence on Tehran's regional policy.

Saddam's comments are cleverly designed to appeal to Arab fears and play upon American ambivalence. Saudi Arabia would like to come to an arrangement with Iran which would secure its role as the guardian of the Sunni Islamic world. Disputes within Opec over oil policy stand in the way and serve to exacerbate suspicions. The other Gulf Arab countries have not shrugged off their apprehension about Iran's imperial ambitions, especially when they are seen to be motivated by Shia fundamentalism.

The official Iraqi media has done nothing to allay these fears. The daily Al Thawra, for example, celebrated the third anniversary of the invasion of Kuwait by announcing that it "has never been [anything] but part of Iraq."

It went on to say that "such a fact cannot be obliterated by armed aggression, unilateral resolutions from states or organisations imposed by force and through American hegemony over the area and the world." The armed forces daily paper, Al Qadisiya added that the departure of the Kuwaiti ruling family was a precondition for stability in the region.

The rhetoric is in keeping with Saddam Hussein's strategy of dealing with the United Sates and the United Nations. When the UN complains and President Clinton threatens (and delivers) military action, the Iraqi leader backs down, only to return to his earlier position. After the stand-off regarding long-term weapons monitoring in July, another Iraqi official paper, Al Jumhurriya proudly announced that Baghdad was only pointing out its "expressed preparedness to comply within a general perspective."

The general perspective is now being set out by Iraq. The worrying factor is that the United States seems quite happy to fit in with it. Washington has undertaken a policy of "dual containment" which fends Iraq off against Iran. It makes no secret of its consideration that both Baghdad and Tehran are inimical regimes.

In a speech last May, Martin Indyk, the top Middle East policy adviser at the National Security Council, stated openly that the governments in Iraq and Iran were both hostile to American interests in the Middle East. He refuted the argument that the United States was reverting to its policy in the 1980s of balancing one regime off against the other. But the effect will be the same.

According to Indyk's reconstruction of US policy, restricting each country's military ambitions and depending on allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait should be sufficient to counter the endeavours of both Tehran and Baghdad.

There are three problems here. First, Iran's intentions are unclear. It may not be able to afford to impose the kind of military predominance of which the Shah dreamed, but so long as it is seen to be to doing so, it will be an unsettling element in the Gulf.

Second, Saudi and Kuwaiti rearmament, impressive though it is terms of expenditure, has proven in the past to be no match for external threats. If Iraq becomes a threat again, the immediate recourse of the Arab Gulf states will be to the United States.

Third, Baghdad has all too clearly retained its military ambitions. This is something of which the United States is well aware. Yet the pressure to lift sanctions against Iraq, which will have the side-effect of easing Saddam Hussein's ability to reconstruct his military machine, becomes ever more palpable.

What the international community tried to do was to imperil Saddam Hussein through the imposition of severe economic sanctions. What Saddam has achieved, on the other hand, is to present the suffering incurred by the Iraqi people as an unforgiveable act of foreign malevolence. The Iraqi leader has accomplished the extraordinary feat of making Iraq look like the victim of its own malpractice.

The United States has given up any hope of dislodging Saddam Hussein. Its policy now appears to be to try and keep Saddam under control rather than see him replaced. That is bad news for the Kurds, for the disorganised Iraqi opposition and for Iraq's neighbours. Saddam Hussein lives to play again.

And play he will. Saddam. has sensed the ambiguity of President Clinton's policy towards Iraq. Clinton wants to present himself as just as tough a leader as his predecessor. George Bush found the opportunity to launch a massive military offensive against Iraq. When the ex-president visited Kuwait in April, there was a botched attempt to assassinate him. It hardly looked like the job of Iraqi professionals, but it gave Bill Clinton the excuse to launch (at very safe distance) a cruise missile attack of his own against Baghdad.

The American strike was designed as much as anything else to boost Clinton's flagging image at home. It received popular support, since Saddam Hussein is an easy objective for US animosity. But its flagrant opportunism has also handed a trump card to the Iraqi leader.

He can now present himself to the Arab world as the unfortunate target of American domestic policies. The more frequently he is attacked (verbally or physically) by the United States, the more he can justify his brutal retention of power and his aims throughout the Gulf as the righteous reaction of a picked-upon Third World leader and a champion of Arab rights.

The impasse in the Arab-Israeli peace talks only makes his task simpler. The United States under President Clinton is now seen within much of the Arab world as colluding with Israel to ditch the Palestinians. Saddam's policy towards the Palestinian cause has been pragmatic, to say the least. But popular Arab diaseffection with the peace process can only be grist to his mill.

Saddam Hussein's confidence that he can carry off this sleight of hand is self-evident. For example, an Iraqi government spokesman disdainfully reported that an aerial incident over the southern no-fly zone in July was "either a hallucination on the part of the pilots or an attempt to fabricate a crisis." Iraq, in the regime's words, poses only an imaginary threat, and responsibility for any crisis in the Gulf lies firmly in the hands of the United States. Washington's attempt to resurrect Iran as a threat thus only serves Saddam's purposes.
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Title Annotation:Saddam Hussein
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Enduring futility.
Next Article:Talking for talking's sake.

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