Demolishing 6 Middle East Myths
by Daniel Pipes
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[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
Why did Saddam Hussein invade Iran back in September 1980? After many years of discussion, informed opinion finally agreed that his motives were defensive-to pre-empt an Iranian effort to overthrow his regime. Well, that argument may have sounded convincing before the invasion of Kuwait, but the Four Hour War revealed Saddam's ambitious drive to dominate the Persian Gulf. In retrospect, it is now clear that his attack on Iran was an attempt to grab oil and territory at a moment of apparent Iranian weakness-and there's nothing defensive about that.
This is not the only piece of conventional wisdom overturned by the August 2 attack. Middle East politics has been revamped by this crisis. Here are seven more received opinions that Saddam Hussein blasted away early that morning.
Israel's destruction of Iraqi nuclear facilities. Remember the world-wide outrage against Israel back in June 1981 after the Israelis bombed the plant at Osirak? The U.N. Security Council unanimously pronounced its condemnation; Washington ostentatiously held up its delivery of armaments to Israel. A decade later, however, the strike looks awfully good. Had Saddam Hussein been armed with nuclear weapons during the war with Iran, much of Tehran would by now be obliterated and large sections of Iran annexed to Iraq. More: Iraqi forces might have rolled straight from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia-long before American forces could have arrived. Today, Saddam could already control five of the oil-rich countries and thereby over half the world's oil reserves. Economic disaster would be one result; and American troops would have no good place to land.
Saddam's ambitions. Then there were those (myself included) who thought Saddam had learned a lesson when his blitzkrieg against Iran turned into eight years of terrible war. The soothing statements from Baghdad along with a seemingly improved domestic scene made it appear that Saddam had shed his wild ambitions. Now it is clear he was dissimulating; but those of us fooled once won't get fooled again.
U.S. arms to the Arabs. Who had it right, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Arab lobby? Pro-Israel elements were right to worry that the arms might end up in unfriendly hands, for this is just what happened with much of the Kuwaiti arsenal. They were also right to argue that the Saudis could not on their own withstand an external threat. Of course, American forces have benefited greatly from finding fully-equipped bases on the ground in Saudi Arabia. The lesson is clear: sell the Saudis all the military infrastructure they want and lease them the planes and tanks.
Jonathan Pollard, spy. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger thought that "Pollard should have been shot" for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. There is no defending a spy, of course, but it should be noted that much of the information Pollard gave the Israelis concerned Iraq, specifically Saddam's chemical warfare capabilities. That no longer looks like quite the crime Weinberger perceived.
Then there is the Palestinian issue.
Arafat's peace initiative. In December 1988, Secretary of State George Shultz and many others (including much of the Israeli left) accepted Yasir Arafat's renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel's existence. This led to the opening of a dialogue between the U.S. and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Arafat's ardent support for Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait put the lie to those kind sentiments. This is how he rewards a government that long supported his cause; how can we expect any Israeli government possibly to believe that the PLO will live in peace with its arch enemy, Israel?
The Palestinian intifada. Since it began in December 1987, the rebellion against Israel was been widely touted as the central event of the Middle East. But stone-throwing and bone-breaking in Nablus lost urgency the moment hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American troops faced off in the sands of Arabia. That two and a half years of intifada could be so thoroughly sidelined points to its relative unimportance to Middle East politics.
The centrality of the Palestinian issue. The weakness of this argument has finally been exposed. Armed conflict, civil strife, and disrupted oil supplies exist independently of the Arab conflict with Israel and would remain even if that problem were solved.
The real issue, we now see, is the behavior of many Arab states-their lack of democratic legitimacy, the brutal treatment of their own citizens, their relentless hostility to Israel, and their reluctance to respect international borders. No longer can Israel be portrayed as the great threat to the Arabs; the events of August show that the problem facing Arabs is not the United States or Israel but their own rulers.
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