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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1999

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“The future stability of the Middle East and the vital interests
of the United States are in jeopardy as direct results
of U.S. policy on Iraq.”

 
I HAVE SERIOUS DOUBTS ABOUT THE U.S. POLICY toward Iraq. These doubts are based on my conviction that the policy is contrary to U.S. interests in the region. It has also proven to be ineffective.

My argument, point by point, is as follows:


  1. Iraq has 185-plus billion barrels of oil. If it wants to build weapons plants and buy weapons, it can and will. 

  2. Weapons of mass destruction (hereinafter WMD) are available on the world market place, especially after the fall of the USSR and the collapse of the Russian economy. Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons scientists are a dime a dozen. 

  1. Related expertise can be found at fairly low prices in the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia and in an economically destitute and politically volatile Russia. For example, Kazakhstan, another country that is in some economic difficulties, retains many of its nuclear weapons facilities of the former USSR. Some of the Kazakh nuclear material has been extracted by the United States, but much of the expertise still is at risk in the marketplace. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have significant uranium reserves. Tajikistan may have as much as ten percent of the world’s known uranium reserves. And Tajikistan is a poor country that is in a state of collapse and rebellion. Add to this situation the looming collapse of North Korea and we have further complications in the marketplace for nuclear and WMD expertise markets. 

  1. With the reestablishment of trade and diplomatic ties between Russia and Iraq (not now being actively discussed by the two parties), such movement of expertise and technology may become easier. In other words, Saddam Hussein may rebuild his WMD plants fairly easily in the not too distant future, ceteris paribus. 

  2. Iraq has 170,000 square miles of territory, mostly desert. If Saddam Hussein wanted to hide vials of biological and chemical weapons stocks, then it would likely be impossible for any outside weapons inspectors to find them all. It will likely also be impossible to destroy them all, aside from carpet bombing every square mile of the country, and even that might not work. A vial of anthrax the size of a ballpoint pen could kill hundreds, if not thousands of people. It is likely that at least some of Iraq’s WMD material could be permanently hidden—or transported rapidly and easily. 

    Considering the “free variable nature” of WMDs, sending in a few hundred cruise missiles may actually cause a much worse outcome than not sending them. (What happens when you whack a hornets’ nest with a stick?) 

  1. The assumption that getting rid of Saddam Hussein is the solution to Iraq problem is simplistic and wrong. The Iraq problem has many of levels to it.  

  2. The tactics used to oust Saddam since 1991 have created an Iraq that will be a source of instability in the Middle East for years to come, well beyond Saddam Hussein’s time. 

  1. The Iraqi people probably have the biggest chips on their shoulders of any people on earth. They have reasons. The Iraqi people have been hammered into the ground by their own leaders, a series of wars, and the sanctions and intermittent attacks for many years.  

    Iraq was, in 1979, the most developed Arab country. It had a significant industrial and agricultural base, and was heading toward using its oil funds toward real effective development. Per capita GDP was about $4,900 per year. Then they were hammered by the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988. Per capita income dropped to about $1,200. By 1988, debt was about $60 billion, damages from the war may have been as much as $500 billion. Then Saddam Hussein decided to attack Kuwait in 1990, followed by the multinational attack on Iraq in 1991. By 1992 GNP per capita had fallen to about $165 to $200 annually. 
     

    Now things are a bit better than in 1992, but the bite of the sanctions has caused deep wounds in the Iraqi economy and society. Disease rates are up, child mortality rates are up, poverty has increased, income
    inequality has likely worsened, crime is up, and on and on and on. Have the sanctions been another Versailles? Could there be someone worse than Saddam Hussein to arise from the ashes of Iraqi society? 

  1. The sanctions on Iraq have no real precedent in modern history. The policy of sanctions has failed on two major counts, among many others: Saddam Hussein is still there, and the Iraqi people hold deep resentments and anger against those whom they blame for their plight. (Many, oddly enough, seem to hold little blame for Saddam Hussein, who was the megalomaniacal pied piper who led them off their steep cliff.) 

    Using sanctions as a diplomatic tool is like using a sledge hammer to
     
    kill a mosquito in the house. You end up smashing the house up, getting everyone in the house angry, and the mosquito gets away. 
  1. About forty-five percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of twenty. That is, this large proportion of the population has known little but living under sanctions and war. They and their older relatives have lived with the idea, constantly repeated on Iraqi TV and radio, that America bears the majority of the blame for their plight. What does that say for U.S. interests in Iraq in a post-sanctions framework? Not much positive should be reasonably expected in the short or medium runs—even if the United States pour billions in aid into the country. It may take generations to heal the wounds and salve the anger.  
  1. The Arab world, outside of a few of the countries’ leaders, is at the point of intolerance regarding U.S. policy on Iraq. Many Egyptians, for instance, simply cannot understand why the Iraqi people are being so brutally punished. There were demonstrations in Cairo after recent bombing that involved some of the children of the elite families of Egypt, a highly unusual occurrence. The demonstrations in Syria, Sudan, Jordan, and the West Bank and Gaza got violent. The depth and breadth of anger against U.S. policy on Iraq in the Arab world is palpable.  

    The most educated and well traveled, or well read, Arabs know the many good sides of the United States: the values that many in America hold, the charitable giving of U.S. citizens, how many Americans do volunteer work to help the poor and those others who could not help themselves, and the historical position of the United States toward aid and development of the less developing countries, as examples. These educated Arabs are baffled by U.S. policy toward Iraq. One of them, a very distinguished scholar and political activist, said to me recently, “I do not understand how a country as great as the United States could have a policy that so thoroughly contradicts the basic assumptions of much of what its people believe.” 
     

  1. Cruise missile diplomacy has also failed to bring the Iraqi people to the “other side,” whatever that might be. It has failed to oust Saddam Hussein. So what has been the point of sending hundreds of cruise missiles into Iraq at a cost that may have been more than the entire economic aid package to Egypt this year? 

  2. It is time for a more humane, subtle and intelligent policy to deal with the Iraq problem. The sledge hammer approach has failed miserably. The sanctions have failed miserably. The cruise missiles produced much damage in Iraq, but also succeeded in causing further damage to U.S. interests in the Middle East in the long run, as have the sanctions.  
  1. Surely Saddam Hussein is a blight on the Arab world, on the Middle East, and on the world, but must the Iraqi people, many of whom just want to have a decent life and could care less about WMDs and “Pan-Hussein” hegemony nonsense, suffer under such an ineffectual, and undoubtedly blunt and brutal, foreign policies?  
  1. The point of any foreign policy of any country should be to support, protect, and develop that country’s interests in the region where the policy is applied. Clearly, U.S. interests in the Middle East have been significantly harmed in the short, medium and long runs by its Iraq policy.  

SO WHY CAN'T AMERICA'S DIPLOMATS and other policy makers go back to the drawing board and think up a better policy, one that works?

The future stability of the Middle East and the vital interests of the United States are in jeopardy as direct results of current U.S. policy on Iraq. 

 


AuthorThe author, professor of economics and Middle East studies at American University in Cairo, points out to American Diplomacythat he makes no claims to inside knowledge about the diplomacy of the Middle East. He has lived in Egypt since 1993, however, and for many years has devoted much of his research to the economics of Arab-Israeli peace and the economic consequences of the Gulf War.

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