New thinking after the Gulf War

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at a panel convened by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, on or about March 11, 1991.

Our brief this afternoon is quite a large one—perhaps too large, given the time constraints. There is no corner of the Middle East where this war has not had repercussions, no issue that has not been affected. The region has experienced an earthquake, with its epicenter in Iraq and Kuwait, where the structures of political life have been badly damaged. The shocks have spread throughout the region, creating cracks in political structures elsewhere. There are likely to be more aftershocks, and there remains the distinct possibility of more quakes in the future.

It would be futile to attempt predictions here. And you all know from your newspaper reading just who’s up and who’s down in the Middle East as a result of this war. Shifts of alliance are also underway, which is usual for the Middle East in the aftermath of crises. What I would like to try is to penetrate beneath the news, and ask whether the war and the war’s outcome have changed the most basic assumptions of any of the important actors in the Middle East. There is a lot of talk about an elusive “newness” in the Middle East: a “new atmosphere” or “new thinking.” The “newness,” if it is there at all, must lie in the realm of perceptions, since the political structure of the region hasn’t really changed. So allow me to dwell on perceptions, and quote a few revealing quotes along the way. I apologize in advance for the many sins of omission in this very quick survey.

First of all, let me clarify what I meant when I said the political structure hadn’t changed. When we emerge from our command centers and bunkers and sealed rooms to survey the damage, it is remarkable just how resilient the region’s political structure has been. As of this moment, all of the rulers, all of the regimes, which were in place on August 1, are still in place today—including the Emir of Kuwait and President Saddam Husayn. Not only are the regimes still intact and the rulers still in place. The borders of the Middle East have not changed by a jot as an immediate consequence of this war. The lines on the map are still in place; a political map of the Middle East printed last year is still accurate today. We would merely have to shade a corner of Iraqi desert as “Allied-occupied territory.”

Despite the template of the “new world order,” this was a war to sustain the old world order in the Middle East—an order of states, of borders, and in some cases of regimes, created and installed by England and France during their moment in the Middle East between the world wars. Now the Arab nationalist school of historiography has labeled this partition the root cause of all conflict in the region. But in practice it has become of sheet anchor of the inter-Arab peace. Let me quote Lebanon’s present foreign minister, who put it best in an interview last month:

The Middle East is a region based on Sykes-Picot foundations [Sykes and Picot negotiated the secret Anglo-French agreement for partition of the Middle East during the First World War]. Regardless of the advantages or disadvantages of the resulting map, these foundations have served the region for the last 30 years. The political and economic structure is based on them, and so are the Arab world’s interactions. By entering Kuwait, Iraq not only occupied a fraternal Arab state, but encroached on certain fundamental foundations, the first of which is the principal of maintaining the map of this region. The swallowing of Kuwait would not be an isolated action. Without a doubt the swallowing of Kuwait would later lead to similar actions by some Arab states. They would say: if it is permissible for Iraq to change these maps, then it must be permissible for us to do the same.

This acceptance of Sykes-Picot is a striking repudiation of the tenets of Arab unity. Here is a preference for the order left by Western colonialism over the disorder fomented by Arab nationalism. Husni Mubarak put it another way when he said that Saddam Husayn represented a throwback to the 1940s and 1950s—years of wild pan-Arab hyperbole and ill-fated unification schemes, meant to undo the borders drawn by imperialism. In the end, Saddam found too few Arabs willing to step with him through this time warp. The war has proved that the Arab states have made the old order their own, and are even prepared to wage war to preserve it. Saddam had opened a Pandora’s Box when he abolished Kuwait—a state as arbitrary as Saudi Arabia or Jordan or Lebanon, or even Iraq itself. The war was meant to shut Pandora’s Box—to uphold the status quo, to draw back from the terrible abyss glimpsed in Iraq’s occupation policies in Kuwait.

In some quarters, this is being called the new Arab realism. The old Arab fantasy was the idea that Arab states could guarantee their collective national security through their own unity and without reliance on non-Arabs. The Arabs were brethren who had been artificially divided; why should they not pool their military and economic resources? Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the brutality of its occupation shattered the illusion of Arab solidarity which had been cultivated precisely in places like Kuwait. The new Arab realism was best expressed by Abdallah Bishara, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, himself a Kuwaiti:

We in the Gulf and the people of Kuwait have paid the price of fixed emotional positions and of basing our policy on so-called solidarity and on the so-called fence of Arab fraternity. My view of the Arab future is based on a concept which destroys the myth of Arab fraternity, the myth of Arab security, and the myth of the one homeland. We will emerge as a realistic people basing our dealings on interests, not futile emotional theories.

To call the Arab homeland a myth is powerful stuff—the kind of thing no official would ever have dared say in public, though he might utter it furtively. Bishara goes on to say that future regional security arrangements must include Western powers, as well as the non-Arab states of Turkey, Pakistan, and “realistic” Iran. “Those who have danced to the nationalist songs and to the lies”—Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians—”will have no place in this security concept.” This kind of open repudiation of Arabism is really quite bold, and a genuine piece of “new thinking.” It reflects deep pain and a good deal of self-criticism over the conceptual blindness that led Kuwaitis, Saudis, and Egyptians to err so completely in estimating Iraqi intentions. This new realism, policy shorn even of the pretense of sentiment, now constitutes the intellectual underpinning of the Gulf world view. It will be the basis of the security regime now being constructing in the Gulf.

On the other side of the divide, especially in Iraq but also among Palestinians and Jordanians, there is just as much pain. Whether there is as much self-criticism and “new thinking,” it is difficult to say. Certainly there is still a surfeit of denial and accusation. The denial takes the form of the myth of Iraqi steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds, and the myth of the orderly Iraqi withdrawal. In this camp, it is still believed that the Allies sued for a cease-fire because of high casualties. The reports of large numbers of Iraqi casualties, desertions, and prisoners of war, are dismissed as disinformation.

The truth has been winding its way slowly, only to produce a shift from denial to accusations of “betrayal.” In the first stage, these accusations were leveled against the Arab coalition partners, but now there are even signs of mutual recrimination within the pro-Iraq camp. A figure in the Iraqi trade union movement appeared in Jordan early last month, to assure Jordanians that Iraq had executed a brilliant strategic withdrawal. But he also made this criticism of the famous Arab street support of Iraq:

We had hopes that the Arab street would do more than just holding marches and giving speeches that have not served to achieve anything. There must have been more than this emotional and routine state of condemnation and denunciation; a state that should have changed into a full mobilization of the Arab street and hitting foreign interests. But misinformation has succeeded in affecting the Arab people psychologically. It was aimed at destroying and weakening the Arab spirit through its poisonous means and devious methods.

Through this web of denial and accusation, there are few signs of “new thinking”—which would obviously involve criticisms of Saddam Husayn and his principal ally, PLO chairman Yasir Arafat. There are two reasons this criticism has remained muted. First, there is fear of disintegration: that Iraq and the Palestinian movement may fragment unless they unite behind the old regimes, however incompetent they proved themselves to be in this crisis. Second, potential “new thinkers” have been threatened with violence.

In Iraq itself, we cannot be certain exactly what is transpiring. The known challenges are being posed by Shiites and Kurds, whose opposition to the regime has been endemic, and who are motivated by nothing at all like “new thinking.” This is sectarian and ethnic strife of the oldest sort. Because Shiites and Kurds want Western support, they have been working to brush up their images, to portray their rebellions as the salvation Washington has been waiting for. I was struck by an interview given by a member of the Politburo of the Shiite fundamentalist Da’wa movement, who announced that his movement is now perceived as “an Iraqi opposition organization that calls for democracy and the establishment of a constitutional system in Iraq, whereas in the past our party used to be described as a pro-Iran terrorist party.”

But in fact, there is no evidence that the Da’wa movement, along with the rest of the Shiite opposition, is fighting for anything but its old demand for a Shiite-dominated fundamentalist state. Faced with such threats, the Sunni core of the Iraqi state still holds together, actually demanding of Saddam that he be still more ruthless, that he save them from the vengeance of Shiites and Kurds who also know the art of gouging eyes. So long as the country is plunged in civil war, the ruling elite in Baghdad cannot afford to draw far-reaching conclusions from the Gulf war—and cannot afford to dump Saddam.

In the case of the Palestinians, there is the same denial of Iraqi defeat, the same dogged adherence to Saddam Husayn as hero and victim. Faruq Qaddumi has been to Baghdad since the ceasefire, and declared the Arab allies of the U.S. to be the real losers of the war. Abu’l Abbas, Secretary-General of the Palestine Liberation Front, whose removal from the PLO Executive Committee has become a consistent U.S. demand, has assured the Iraqis that “Our Palestinian people is fully aware of the fact that the result of one battle does not show the final results of the raging historic war between evil and good.” PLO apparatchiks claim that popular support for the PLO has actually increased since the war. Certainly few Palestinians have gone on the record with criticism of the PLO’s decision to back Iraq.

However, there are bits and pieces of interesting evidence for some “new thinking” here as well. I would cite the leaflet of the Unified National Command earlier this month, which was entitled “Appeal of Adherence to the PLO.” In fact, it was a threat against “cowardly voices who have begun to come out of their burrows to go along with the occupiers’ plans and American dominance, against all those forces who try to cast into doubt the PLO’s right to represent out people and to negotiate on their behalf.” The leaflet therefore confirmed the existence of these “cowardly voices,” although one cannot be sure just who the leaflet had in mind.

Then there was the booklet which appeared in Beirut, entitled “Enough Losing Bets, Abu Ammar”—nom de guerre of Yasir Arafat. The booklet claimed to be the work of the January 14th Corrective Movement. January 14th is the date of the assassination of Abu Iyad, who had been a major PLO strategist. (Abu Iyad is said to have been critical of Arafat’s decision to back Iraq, and may have been assassinated by Iraqi agents.) The booklet called for a session of the PLO Executive Committee, to be followed by a meeting of the Palestine National Congress which would elect a replacement for Arafat.

Finally, there are a variety of off-the-record quotes from Palestinians who had their doubts about the wisdom of the PLO’s strategy before the war, and now believe they have been vindicated. But who will come forward, where are the names? Interestingly, Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres claims to have them. Asked if Arafat had lost his credibility, Peres announced that “Arafat—and his previous assurances of peace—are completely incredible.

But there are certainly people in the West Bank and Gaza who could be credible representatives of the Palestinian people. We can sit down together with them. And we know their names.” Peres was then asked to give those names. “No. By doing so we would subject our potential partners unnecessarily to lethal dangers at the moment.”

Alas, we have come to the ultimate impediment to open “new thinking.” Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy has also spoken of this Palestinian “sobering process.” Fearful lest Syria’s Asad gain control of their cause, Levy believes Palestinians “will realize that the PLO led them to ruin and disaster and they will come running to talk peace with Israel.” Which is why, of course, David Levy’s critics have labeled him the Shimon Peres of the Likud. It isn’t at all clear just how much of the Palestinian “new thinking” is actually Israeli wishful thinking. The process, if it is at all underway, is only beginning.

As for the Israelis themselves, we need not go to anonymous leaflets and booklets. Everyone is on the record. As is well known, the war brought about a good deal of “new thinking” on the Israeli left, which was appalled at how quickly its Palestinian partners in dialogue cheered Saddam Husayn and his Scuds. Some preferred to avoid self-criticism, and put the blame for Palestinian choices squarely on the Israeli government. Denial at work again. But many did have enough intellectual honesty to admit that their own understanding of Palestinian and Arab politics was seriously deficient, and they have moved to rectify it.

But the left in Israel, despite its cultural centrality, remains politically marginal. More interesting are perceptions in the political center and on the right. Here the debate over the lessons of the war is in full swing. It began, of course, with the Israeli decision not to retaliate—a piece of new strategic thinking which paid off. The fact that the Likud government stayed its hand was a remarkable triumph of realism over dogma, one that I did not expect.

There are other signs of “new thinking” as well, which proceed from the decision not to retaliate. It has become difficult to view the Arab world as a monolith of hatred, given the state of division in the Arab world, and the tacit cooperation which developed between Israel and the “new realists” in the Gulf. I believe it was Moshe Arens who said that Tel Aviv and Riyadh should be made twin cities, and who cited the fact that Saudi pilots were dispatched to attack Iraqi Scud launchers aimed at Israel.

There is also a growing interest in Syrian shifts of emphasis. Although no one seems to think the Syrians have altered any of their most fundamental assumptions, the professional estimate of the Chief of Staff is that Syria has no war option: “The threat posed by the eastern front has been reduced for the next few years or at least for the near future.” Syria may be led to a process for a lack of all other options. In the defense establishment and in part of the Likud, there is now a desire to test the extent of change in the wider Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia and Syria—even if that means territorial concession on the Golan, and an Israeli initiative on the Palestinian track.

The idea of Palestinian elections was originally hatched as a coalition compromise, meant by the Likud to deflect American pressure. But since the war, it has undergone a subtle transformation for some members of the Likud, who now see it as a useful instrument to test Palestinian opinion. These are people who believe that perhaps there might be some Palestinian “new thinking,” but who are not willing to take the word of Shimon Peres and David Levy that it exists, and who want the results of a secret ballot. Moshe Arens, citing Palestinian suffering in the intifada and Gulf war, has put it this way:

I hope that in the wake of this suffering many of them reached the conclusion that violence leads nowhere but to additional suffering, and that the time has come to call off the violence and begin the political process. Elections are an integral part of promoting peace.

What if “extremists” were elected?

Indeed, there can very well be a situation where the elected people are so extreme that we would have contacts and negotiations, but no agreement. I hope the Arab population realizes this, and I hope the majority of them give their vote to people with whom there is a chance of arriving at an understanding.

The defense of the election plan from within the Likud is an important bit of “new thinking,” especially in the face of Arik Sharon’s claim that the plan is “dangerous” and was only adopted because Labor imposed it on the defunct national unity government.

But if there has been some movement here, there has been only a renewal of antipathy to the PLO in any form, and a reinforcement of the strategic argument for the importance of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza. The attitude to the PLO needs no explanation; the attitude to territory does. During the Scud attacks, there were those who began to wonder whether territory had lost its strategic value, since it could be traversed in minutes by flying missiles.

But the ground war produced a powerful counter-argument. The Director-General of Yitzhak Shamir’s office has pointed out that the Scuds did not defeat Israel, any more than the Allied air war defeated Iraq. It was the ground war which proved decisive—the old-fashioned arrows on the map, the rolling armor. The consensus on the purely strategic importance of the occupied territories is stronger than it has been in a long time.

Were there more time, I could pursue this quest for “new thinking” still further—from the Presidential Palace in Damascus to the lairs of Hizballah in Lebanon. All of it is very elusive, most of it is equivocal, and it is restricted to limits set by the existing political structure. And there are also counter-trends, leading the region in other directions. Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamene’i, alluded to these in a recent sermon. The Americans, he said, had been defeated, and didn’t even know it.

All the peoples of the world hate them today. Is this a victory? They spent billions of dollars on false propaganda to find a way into people’s hearts. These fools have spent billions and nations still hate them. Not just the people of Iraq, the people of the Middle East, Muslim people, Arab people, all of them hate the Americans and are angry with them.

His audience then broke out with chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Britain.” While this remark can no doubt be contextualized away, there is something to it. In addition to “new thinking,” this war has also produced a lot of raw resentment. That resentment is also elusive, equivocal, and restricted to limits set by the existing order. But it is there nonetheless, and its message deserves to be studied as avidly as the kind of talk which is music to our ears.

And so while this war is over, the inconclusive struggle for hearts goes on. This war has undoubtedly spared the Middle East a general conflagration, which we would have faced in a few years time had Iraq not been stopped now. As an inhabitant of the Middle East, I’m deeply grateful for that. This war has bought time, valuable time, which can be used in countless ways. I’m also mildly encouraged by some of the signs I have reported today. When I return to Israel on Sunday, after an absence of nearly three months, I do not expect to find a new Middle East. I do expect to find a place where facile assertions and assumptions are more readily challenged, and to find doubts where certainties once reigned. If that is true for the Middle East beyond Israel—and I have offered a smattering of evidence that it is—then we stand at what Washington likes to call “a defining moment.”