Arabs Balk at Bush War Plan

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Fatah youth in Gaza march in support of Saddam Hussein

Don Rumsfeld appears to have convinced himself that "No" means "Yes" when it comes to Arab objections to an attack on Iraq. Still, the protests from the Arab allies that backed the U.S. during the Gulf War are growing increasingly voluble. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday warned that a U.S. attack on Iraq would unleash "chaos across the region," and spark a backlash beyond the control of Arab leaders. That sentiment has been echoed in recent days by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, all of which host key U.S. military bases in the region — and all of which have reportedly refused to allow their territory to be used to mount an attack. Right now, the only Middle Eastern nation publicly supporting a U.S. invasion of Iraq is Israel.

No matter, says Defense Secretary Rumsfeld — allies will fall into line if the U.S. makes clear that it will act, alone if necessary. But President Bush has lately been getting the opposite advice from key Republican foreign policy thinkers, most notably Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, both close associates of the President's father. Baker and Scowcroft have warned against acting alone, urging the building of a coalition to ensure that attacking Iraq doesn't jeopardize U.S. interests throughout the region. That advice may have prompted the President to meet Tuesday with Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, although there were no signs following their discussion in Crawford, Texas that the Saudis had softened their opposition to a war.

Why the Arabs Demur

The Saudis and other moderate Arab regimes insist they harbor no sympathy for Saddam Hussein and would be happy to throw their weight behind the Bush administration's policy of "regime-change" if it could be done without creating more problems than it would solve. So far, they say, they haven't seen any plan that would rid the world of Saddam without making matters in the Middle East considerably worse than they are at present.

The Saudis are concerned that a U.S. attack that produced significant Iraqi civilian casualties would unleash a violent backlash against American interests throughout the region. But Iraq's neighbors are even more concerned that what would follow the collapse of Saddam's regime would be a violent power vacuum that could destabilize the region. The undercurrent of anarchy in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where the physical survival of the newly installed President Hamid Karzai is wholly dependent on a U.S. security detail, is taken by the Saudis and other Arabs as a cautionary reminder that replacing Saddam's regime would likely be even harder than achieving its overthrow.

Then, there's the question of establishing U.S. bona fides on the Arab street. Because of the close alliance between the U.S. and Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become something of a litmus test of U.S. intentions in the Arab world. Before they'll even consider supporting an attack on Iraq, the Saudis and Egyptians expect Washington to do far more than it is doing at present to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict toward a resolution. (And certainly closer to a two-state, 1967 borders-based solution than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is prepared to go.) Their concern may be less for the fate of the Palestinians than their own power, because even now the stability of U.S.-allied regimes in the Arab world is jeopardized by popular anti-American anger fueled by the violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

Bush administration hawks reject the link, arguing that the U.S. is unable to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that it therefore can't be a reason to delay ousting Saddam. But that won't fly with even the moderate Arabs, who tend to view Ariel Sharon as a greater threat to regional stability than Saddam Hussein. Scowcroft and Baker, among others, are urging President Bush to address this concern — as the first Bush administration did in 1991 — before initiating a war in Iraq.

But even before they get to the shape of a post-Saddam Iraq or the price of Arab support for an attack, President Bush will have to work hard to persuade his Arab allies that Saddam Hussein is threat of the magnitude recently described by Vice President Cheney. The White House may have to share some pretty specific intelligence in order to convince the Saudis that, in Cheney's words, Saddam "is amassing [weapons of mass destruction] to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

His neighbors believe Saddam presents no immediate threat. Like Scowcroft, they tend to question the priority the Bush administration has placed on going after Saddam at a time when the far more immediate threat to the U.S. and its regional allies is the Islamist extremism of the al-Qaeda variety — which they see as having no significant connection with Baghdad. The Saudis and the other Arab regimes that stood with the U.S. in the Gulf War see the situation as qualitatively opposite — back then, the Iraqis initiated the crisis by invading Kuwait. This time, it would be the coalition forces that would have to engineer the crisis. And they're saying they haven't been convinced that it would be in anyone's interest to strike the first blow at what could prove to be a regional hornets' nest.

Going forward, Washington's checklist for winning Arab endorsement of a war in Iraq:

  • Proof of an imminent threat from Baghdad;
  • A war plan that would result in a quick, decisive victory with minimal civilian casualties;
  • Visible progress towards separating Israel and the Palestinians; and
  • A plausible scenario for a stable, post-Saddam Iraq.

    What the Saudis have been saying is that they don't see any checks on that list. Then again, some Washington hawks continue to believe the Saudis will quickly get with the program if the U.S. goes ahead despite their objections. But where President Bush stands on the question is not yet clear.