With Russia’s Yevgeny Primakov, the ex-KGB chief, emerging as the “honest broker” between the United States and Iraq, it must be clear now, even at the White House, that U.S. Middle East policy is in a shambles. Saddam Hussein is breaking out of his isolation; the Russians are back in the Middle East to stay; and it is America that appears increasingly isolated in the region.
The great Gulf War coalition assembled by President Bush is no more. Our European allies, save Great Britain, have moved to the sidelines. Our Arab allies have defected. The great hegemonic power of 1991 finds itself virtually alone in its 1997 confrontation with Iraq.
How did it happen?
High among the reasons the U.S. voice no longer commands as once it did is that the America of 1997 is not the America of 1991. U.S. power has contracted. Since the Gulf War, U.S. armed forces have been reduced by the rough equivalent of Gen. Schwarzkopf’s entire command. Defense spending, as a share of gross domestic product, is now approaching levels last seen at the time of Pearl Harbor.
Truth be told, without stripping every other U.S. defense command, the United States could not today muster the forces to re-enact Desert Storm. There is going to be no Desert Storm II, and Saddam Hussein knows it.
As for the Arab nations we have aided, rescued, befriended and defended, all are opposed to U.S. military strikes on Iraq, most boycotted our Middle East economic conference, and most plan to attend a December conference — in Iran. Clearly, the Arab regimes are far more frightened of their anti-American populations and Islamic fundamentalists than they are of Bill Clinton’s America.
The United States, however, is not blameless for its growing isolation. For not only has America’s power diminished since Desert Storm, so, too, has respect for the United States in the Arab world. With our six years of sanctions on Iraq, we have succeeded in inflicting far more suffering on the Iraqi people than we have on the Beast of Baghdad, who looked quite robust at a recent gun show where he was photographed fondling a semi-automatic. And the United States has been anything but an unbiased referee of the Oslo peace accords. While we have rightly held Yasser Arafat’s feet to the fire on terrorism, President Ezer Weizman and the Israeli Knesset seem less intimidated by Benjamin Netanyahu than do Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress.
As this crisis simmers, only to boil again someday, Americans should ask themselves: If the U.N. Security Council in whose name we are acting will not back us up, and the Europeans whose oil we are protecting will not back us up, and the Arab nations whose regimes we are defending will not back us up — why is Saddam Hussein our problem?
Saddam may have tons of anthrax or VX or whatever gas he is hoarding, but he never dared to use it in the Gulf War when he had the chance. And he can be put on notice that if he ever uses his weapons of mass destruction against Americans, we will use our weapons of mass destruction on him. And next time, he will not escape.
Indeed, if deterrence — the threat of massive retaliation — worked against Stalin and Mao, why would it not work against an Iraq with no navy or air force and a GDP that is but 1 percent of our own?
The painful truth is that the administration’s policy of “dual containment” is fast approaching a dead end. In the long run, the Persian Gulf is going to be dominated by an Iran of nearly 70 million people today, which will have twice that many in the year 2050. Already, Tehran is building a powerful regional navy and possesses anti-ship missiles based on land and sea that could do serious damage to U.S. warships in the shallow waters of the Gulf — far more damage than Baghdad can threaten.
It is time we began to ask ourselves several critical questions.
What exactly is our vital interest in the Persian Gulf? If it is oil, how is our oil supply threatened, when the three most hostile OPEC nations — Iran, Iraq and Libya — are not selling to us today, only because we refuse to buy? And what exactly are the radical Arabs or Iran going to do with their oil, if they don’t sell it for Western dollars? Drink it? And what military threat do these regimes present to an America that has no troops in their region and no ships off their coasts?