Ever since the latest phase of the Iraqi crisis started last autumn, most Arab countries have found themselves in a hole. What is surprising is that they to continue to dig, making the hole deeper.
The Arabs’ initial predicament was understandable. Until the last minute they did not believe that the US would invade. They hoped that the whole thing would blow over. One Arab leader described the crisis as “a summer storm.” At the end of January, Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary General, told me during a dinner in Davos that he was “absolutely sure” there would be no war. When asked why, he said, “Something will come up.”
Well, what came up was the US-led invasion. The Arabs had developed no policy to prevent it or, when it happened, to influence its course. More than three moths after the fall of the Baathist regime, there has been no attempt at developing a common Arab analysis of the war and its aftermath. Instead, most Arab states have had recourse to their traditional methods of negation and dissimulation. They have refused to recognize the newly created Governing Council, and toyed with the idea of suspending Iraq’s membership of the Arab League. They have used the United Nations as a fig leaf to hide their lack of a policy on Iraq. Asked by the US to allocate peacekeeping troops to Iraq, some have said yes, some have said perhaps, and some have made noises that mean neither yes nor no. The general mood is one of rejectionism, saying no because it is believed, wrongly, that Arabs like naysayers.
For 30 years Arab policy on Palestine was based on rejectionism. It produced no benefits for the Palestinians who had to pay, often with their blood, the price of Arab League “heroism.” A new generation of Arab rejectionists now believe that they can play the same game with Iraq. They are mistaken.
Iraq is not Palestine. It is one of the most important Arab countries with immense human and natural resources. Even today, after 30 years of the most vicious tyranny and four wars, Iraq is generally in better shape than some Arab states. Iraq’s many problems, mostly due to a collapsing infrastructure of services, are highlighted because of global media attention. Power brownouts in Baghdad and Basra are massively reported. But few people learn of blackouts in other Arab capitals. Acts of violence in Baghdad make the world headlines because of American presence. But there is no coverage of the bigger violence that affects several Arab countries right now.
Iraq will lose little if it is suspended or excluded from the Arab League, an organization that is regarded as moribund by many of its members. The Arabs must ask themselves what it means to refuse to recognize the Governing Council in Baghdad. Does it mean that the Iraqi state has ceased to exist? That would be a most dangerous assumption. Far from amounting to an act of opposition to the American presence, that kind of rejectionism would give Washington carte blanche in Iraq. For, if Iraq has ceased to exist as a nation state, it is no more than a territory with a number of inhabitants who are yet to emerge as “ nation” and seek self-expression as a state.
Can the Arabs now claim that Saddam’s Baathist regime remains the legitimate expression of Iraqi statehood? If yes, they should say so openly. And if they do not wish to cling to that illusion they should accept the only authority that now symbolizes the continuity of the Iraqi state, that is to say the Governing Council.
Rejectionism on Palestine divided and ultimately weakened the Arabs. Rejectionism on Iraq is also dividing the Arabs and could lead to further loss of influence for them. The most realistic and efficient policy on Iraq is to accept the occupation as a temporary measure and a necessary evil while rejecting it as a long-term proposition. Once that is done, the Arabs, seeking support from the wider international community, and working with the US-led coalition, could seek a timetable for the transfer of power to a freely elected Iraqi government.
Many countries have already understood the realities of Iraq. Neighboring Iran and Turkey have given de facto recognition to the Governing Council and are thus in a position to seek a high profile role in that country. Russia, too, has adopted a similar position. Will the Arabs miss the bus, once again?
Arab News Opinion 15 August 2003