When historians analyze the failure of Bill Clinton’s Middle East policy, they will almost certainly focus on the distorting effects of the “peace process.” Pursued with a willful, quasi-messianic enthusiasm by the Clinton administration and Israel’s Labor governments, the diplomacy was based on a fundamentally flawed premise that the U.S. victory in the Cold War and its victory in the Gulf War had created an entirely new situation in the region. Given America’s demonstrated strength, it was argued, figures like Hafez Assad and Yasser Arafat would recognize they had no choice but to reach agreements with America’s close ally, Israel.
But Mr. Assad never made peace with Israel. And it should be clear that Mr. Arafat has no intent to do so either. Moreover, the United States never really defeated Iraq, because the Gulf War never really ended. Saddam Hussein is coming back. The rabid outburst of Palestinian violence against Israel could scarcely have come at a better time for Baghdad. Since early August, Iraq has been in a bellicose mood, issuing one angry statement after another. Habitually the Clinton administration ignores them. “Same-old, same old” was actually how State Department spokesman Richard Boucher disposed of one of Saddam’s more violent utterances.
But when Baghdad’s rhetoric reaches a sustained and angry peak, Iraq usually does something one of several reasons to suspect Baghdad’s hand in the attack on the USS Cole, which was headed for the Persian Gulf to enforce the embargo against Iraq. But the Palestinian violence for which Ariel Sharon’s Sept. 28 visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount was only a pretext has afforded Baghdad another avenue to assert its power and threaten U.S. allies in the region. Iraq has assumed the most vicious, virulent posture toward Israel of any state in the region and it is using the Palestinian issue to embarrass and undermine other Arab governments.
Baghdad’s language is incredibly vile. Soon after the Palestinian clashes began, Iraq’s foreign minister denounced Israel as “a midget entity, a usurper, and a claw of colonialism.” A few days later, Saddam asserted, “An end must be put to Zionism … Let them give us a small adjacent piece of land … We will not wait until the day comes when the blockade is lifted to put an end to them.”
Saddam’s next step was to start moving Iraqi forces toward the Jordanian border, as the Pentagon revealed last week. The Barak government was quick to disavow any intent to take action against those forces in decided contrast to the government of Itzhak Shamir, which itched to defend Israel against Iraq during the Gulf War.
Mr. Barak, it seems, is prepared to accept Washington’s position that the United States will take care of Iraq and Israel should maintain a low profile on the issue. Thus on Sunday, Secretary of Defense William Cohen cautioned Saddam, “We follow [Iraqi troop movements] very closely and we should forewarn him, as we have, that any move that he would make to attack his neighbors would be met by a very strong response by the United States.”
Why wait? Given the Clinton administration’s record, Saddam may not be much impressed. And what if it is not necessarily his intent to cross the Jordanian border?
The Palestinian clashes with Israel precipitated serious unrest in Jordan, where the population is more than 60 percent Palestinian. What if Iraqi forces simply sit on the Iraqi side of the border, while Saddam reiterates that he would destroy Israel, if only he were given access to land bordering the Jewish state?
In the spring of 1998, the late King Hussein urged Mr. Clinton to develop a plan to overthrow Saddam. He was aware he might not live much longer (he did not survive the year) and aware that Saddam could threaten Jordan’s internal stability once he was gone. But the king was rebuffed.
Of course, Jordan is not going to allow Iraqi forces into the country. Not only would it be a violation of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and unacceptable to the United States, but Iraqi forces inside Jordan would threaten the rule of the young King Abdullah. Still, by making it appear as if the Jordanian government stood in the way of Palestine’s liberation, Saddam might be able to exacerbate significantly Palestinian unrest there.
Moreover, he would appear as a hero to Arabs elsewhere. And that is just one of several ways Saddam might exploit present tensions. Indeed, he has already gained a great deal. In an attempt to contain the Palestinian unrest, Egypt will host an Arab summit at week’s end. It is only the second Arab summit since the Gulf War, and it is the first to which Iraq is invited. It is another step in the normalization of Iraq’s position in the region and internationally. And that will only serve as a springboard for Saddam’s next war.
Laurie Mylroie is the author of “Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America” (American Enterprise Institute Press, September 2000), and publisher of Iraq News.