HARDLY HAD he invaded Kuwait in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein offered to withdraw in return for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. He thus established the concept of "linkage" between two great zones of Middle Eastern crisis, the old one in Palestine, the new one in the Persian Gulf.
Western powers called it blackmail. But in due course "linkage" surreptitiously asserted itself. After the liberation of Kuwait, President Bush promulgated a "new world order" whose cornerstone, in the Middle East, was to be an Arab-Israeli settlement. The United States' Arab allies understood that, to achieve it, the United States would back away from its historic pro-Israeli bias. "Everything will change in the region," proclaimed President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. "George Bush agrees with me that the Israelis must be pushed into a Palestinian solution."There has indeed been spectacular change, with the Madrid conference, Oslo and the Jordan-Israeli peace. But no less striking, beneath these formal accomplishments, is the lack of it. The gulf crisis is not merely still there, it may now explode into something even graver than, if very different from, the Kuwaiti invasion itself. The Palestine crisis hovers perpetually on the edge of new catastrophe. And "linkage" is back with a vengeance.
Nothing highlights that like the conjunction of two fiascoes. One is the escalating chemical weapons showdown, the other is the fourth Middle East and North Africa Economic Conference, which opened in Qatar Sunday. Both grew out of the new Middle East order; both show how close it is to collapse.
The two crises have their separate dynamics, their separate U.S. contributions to them. The basic problem in the gulf is that Saddam remains in power. That is firstly because, in a disgraceful act of policy, the United States did not get rid of him when that was physically easy and morally acceptable; it betrayed the great Shiite and Kurdish uprisings which it had itself encouraged.
It is secondly because "containing" the monster has long been a policy of almost neurotic refusal to consider alternatives. These are basically two: either to go beyond "containment" with an activist strategy to bring him down, or, retreating from it, to permit his eventual rehabilitation. Both are very scary, largely because of the adverse conditions in which, thanks to U.S. inattention, they would have to be carried out.
On the other, Palestinian front, it is America's Arab friends, not its enemies, who have rebelled against the new order. These were to promote Arab-Israeli economic integration. But each conference was less successful than the last. This time, most of America's leading Arab allies simply haven't shown up at all.
But for Israel, and more especially Netanyahu, Saddam would be a far less formidable adversary than he is. Not that it is Saddam himself to whom Arab peoples are rallying. It is Iraq the Arabs fear for. They do so out of natural sympathy for the misery to which sanctions have reduced their fellow Arabs.
But, above all, they do so because of the sanctions the United States is not demanding against Israel, even as it violates U.N. resolutions, flouts understandings with the Palestinians, builds a vast arsenal of unconventional weapons. Far from shedding its pro-Israeli bias, the United States has taken it to such lengths that, in the Arabs' eyes, it doesn't seek to "get" Saddam only because he is wicked, but because he is Arab.
If this showdown ends like its predecessors, with just another airstrike, another Saddam climb-down, the United States can claim that its post-Persian Gulf War order is still intact. If it doesn't, it may have to choose between retreating from, or going beyond, "containment." To permit his eventual rehabilitation would be all but impossible.
On the other hand, thanks largely to "linkage," the use of massive force against him, with the effect, if not perhaps the purpose, of destroying him, could have consequences so virulent and far-reaching it would require another Desert Storm, or some less swift, surgical and glorious version of it, to undo them.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.