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Analysis

Arabs, pro-U.S. in 1990, seethe

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2003


AMMAN, Jordan -- In another war, at another time, Dr. Jacob Zayadin supported an American-led strike against Iraq.

It was the summer of 1990, and the sight of Saddam Hussein's tanks rolling into neighboring Kuwait appalled Zayadin, a urologist and longtime Jordanian political activist.

"Why invade?" he wondered then. "Kuwait is a small Arab country and Iraq is 20-million people. It will be terrible for Kuwait and the whole Arab world."

Today, Zayadin is appalled again. But this time, it is at the sight of American and British troops rumbling across the Iraqi desert and bombing Iraqi cities.

"I hate Saddam Hussein, he was the origin of all terrible things in Iraq, but this is not the way," Zayadin says. "I am against this war. . . . This is not for democracy or the welfare of the Iraqi people or Arab countries, but it is to control the world."

Zayadin's dramatic turn of opinion reflects that of Arab leaders. Unlike their stance in the first Gulf War, Arab governments are almost universally opposed to the current campaign against Iraq.

In 1991, the United States had the support of almost every Arab nation for Operation Desert Storm. Even Syria, a former Soviet ally, contributed troops.

This time, only Kuwait is in the "coalition of the willing." Although several Arab countries are allowing allied forces to use their bases and airspaces, Arab rulers say that the new U.S.-led war could destabilize the Middle East and increase Islamic extremism throughout the world.

What has changed in the past 12 years?

The answers range from the obvious to the complex. Like the shifting sands of the desert, reasons that are publicly stated often obscure others more subtle.

Inarguably, there is one distinct difference between Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom: It is the United States, not Iraq, that is invading another country.

"In the first Gulf War, Iraq's position was that of a transgressor that entered Kuwait, and it gave much more legitimacy to Arab governments standing up against Iraq," says Dr. Maha Azzam, a Mideast expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"This time, there is a very strong perception that it is Iraq being transgressed, that the Western forces are the transgressors of Iraqi sovereignty."

Amatzia Baram, a fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, agrees.

"Iraq isn't invading another Arab country so Arab regimes do not feel they can wholeheartedly and openly support this thing. It doesn't mean they want Saddam Hussein to stay in power -- most hate him -- but the public is not worried about him. They see him as someone who can stand up to the West, eyeball to eyeball."

Arab leaders oppose Operation Iraqi Freedom for another simple reason. Despite President Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein is "a threat to his neighbors," few of them actually feel threatened. Indeed, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria enjoyed increasingly good relations with Iraq after the first Gulf War and, in some cases, developed a thriving if illicit trade based on smuggled Iraqi oil.

"There is a very strong feeling," Azzam says, "that Iraq was largely disarmed in the last Gulf War, that despite all the talk of possible chemical and biological weapons Iraq's military has been very hard hit and that the regime survived in a very weakened form with no ambitions against its neighboring states."

Even Israel, often cited as Iraq's likeliest target, has shown little evidence of concern. Unlike 1991, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis fled Tel Aviv as Hussein fired Scud missiles at the city, most people have stayed put and the general mood in the country has been business as usual.

Why so calm?

With its own superb arsenal, Israel is the Mideast country best equipped to deal with Hussein if he truly posed a threat. It has not hesitated to act when it thinks its national security is in jeopardy; in 1981 Israeli jets bombed a nuclear reactor under construction in the western Iraqi desert, setting back Hussein's nuclear weapons program by 15 years.

Israel is not involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it looms large in the thinking that has turned Arab governments against the current war.

Since the Jewish state was created in 1948, Arabs have been on the losing end in a long string of Arab-Israeli conflicts: the '48, '67 and '73 Mideast wars, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the ongoing strife in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Add to that two wars against Iraq led by the United States -- Israel's closest ally -- and you have what many Arabs consider "a catalog of defeat."

"The feeling is that this is enough -- it's just one more time in which Arabs are going to be defeated and humiliated," Azzam says.

In publicly opposing the war, Arab leaders are also trying to divert attention from the failings of their own autocratic regimes, says Baram of the Brookings Institution.

"Let's face it, most Arab Muslims are a very frustrated lot because they have not been doing very well during the last century. . . . They have deeply seated frustrations as well as many problems in their own countries, not just a lack of democracy but also horrendous corruption and so much poverty.

"They see what's going on but they feel powerless. Rather than solving the problems in their own societies, they're externalizing the blame. And who's to blame? It's the West, it's often Israel."

But Arab regimes may be doing themselves a dangerous disservice by so loudly opposing a war they are quietly helping to facilitate. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and other Arab countries are hosting thousands of U.S. troops or letting warplanes use their airspace to attack a fellow Arab country.

"The regimes are playing a dual game," Azzam says. "In front of their people they are against the war and behind the scenes they are acquiescing to the United States. That dilemma causes a greater threat to them in the long run. Their people are aware of what they're doing, and it increases the anger and despair in the region that one day will explode."

A case in point is Jordan. It has been playing a delicate balancing act since the first Gulf War.

At least half of Jordan's 5.2-million people are Palestinians with a deep hatred of Israel. In 1990, then-King Hussein thought Iraq had made a grave mistake in invading Kuwait. But the king knew that Saddam Hussein enjoyed great support among Palestinians, so he kept Jordan out of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq.

"King Hussein had little choice but to join his people," Baram says. "He didn't think he could ride a storm that would certainly arise if he joined the allied forces."

Neutrality came at high political and economic cost. It severely strained Jordan's relations with the United States, and angered Kuwait and other Persian Gulf countries so much that they expelled thousands of Jordanian guest workers. Their return home increased Jordan's already high levels of poverty and joblessness.

Toward the end of his life, King Hussein's role as a peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won him renewed favor -- and aid -- from the United States. Eager to remain in America's good graces, his son, Abdullah, has let U.S. troops use Jordanian bases and airspace in the invasion of neighboring Iraq.

Yet Abdullah also wants to placate his own people, who overwhelmingly oppose the war. For that reason, he has publicly denied any Jordanian involvement in the war "even though everybody knows it," Baram says.

Thus far, Jordanian police have kept a tight lid on antiwar demonstrations. A rally Friday that was expected to turn violent quickly broke up when scores of riot-equipped police converged on demonstrators from all directions.

But the repressed anger could destabilize the Jordanian regime, experts say. Although the 41-year-old Abdullah and his wife, Rania, are popular in the West, most Jordanians have seen little improvement in their lives since he took the throne in 1999. Now the war is further hurting the economy as trade with Iraq stops and Jordan's tourism industry collapses.

Other Arab countries are also affected by the war, but "the Jordanian regime is the only one really in danger," Baram says. "They have more than a 50 percent chance of riding out the storm, but my feeling is that they are in danger."

By putting countries like Jordan in such conflicted positions the United States is not only hurting them, but itself, many feel. As odious as the Bush administration might might find it, the view throughout the Arab world is that Operation Iraqi Freedom is a blatant act of aggression that will have disastrous consequences.

"America was never hated by people all over the world like it is right now," says Zayadin, the Jordanian activist. "I think America is in great danger right now."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com .

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