Global Policy Forum

The War Saddam Won


By Thomas L. Friedman

New York Times
February 6, 2001

The Bush team has a full-fledged public relations disaster on its hands in the Arab world.

From the smallest pistachio seller here on the shores of the Persian Gulf to the highest Arab ministers, there is not only total opposition to any Bush plans to tighten sanctions on Saddam Hussein until he is squeezed out of power, but in fact virtually unanimous support for lifting sanctions immediately.

America has lost the propaganda war with Saddam. Period. And before the sanctions regime collapses entirely, the U.S. needs to find a way to at least salvage an international ban on all weapons sales to Iraq, with border inspections, so that Saddam's military power is contained - and forget about using endless economic sanctions to get rid of him. They are not sustainable.

Especially after Ariel Sharon wins the Israeli election today. Judging from many conversations here, the Arab street is poised to say to the Bush team: "Let me get this straight. You want us to join America in imposing sanctions on the Iraqi leader who smashed Kuwait, while America accepts the Israeli leader who smashed Lebanon? Not a chance."

The U.S. effort to isolate Saddam has died of many causes. For one, Saddam totally outfoxed Washington in the propaganda war. All you hear and read in the media here is that the sanctions are starving the Iraqi people - which is true. But the U.S. counter-arguments that by complying with U.N. resolutions Saddam could get those sanctions lifted at any time are never heard. Preoccupied with the peace process, no senior U.S. officials have made their case in any sustained way here, and it shows.

You would never know from talking to people in the gulf that just a few weeks ago Saddam Hussein's son Uday put forward a "working paper" to the Iraqi National Assembly calling for a new emblem that showed Kuwait "as an integral part of greater Iraq." You would never know that Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, recently declared that "Kuwait got what it deserved." You would never know that during the period from June to December 2000, despite all the hunger among the Iraqi people, the U.N. reported that Saddam bought only $4.2 billion worth of food and medicine for his people - even though under the U.N. oil-for-food program he had $7.8 billion to spend.

No, all you hear now are the sorts of arguments that Egypt's foreign minister, Amr Moussa, made at the Davos Forum last week: "We can't expect that the people of Iraq live under sanctions forever. . . . Since the war, public opinion in the Arab world has moved 180 degrees." Many here would agree.

Even if Colin Powell came to the gulf to make the right arguments, he would have an uphill battle. For one thing, Washington has forgotten how different Iraq looks from the Arab world. The leaders of the small Persian Gulf sheikdoms are very good at calculating the balance of power. They know the difference between the mirage and the oasis, and they know that as long as Saddam is posing no immediate military threat to them, his army is still a useful counterweight to their more dangerous historic enemy - Iran.

At the same time, on the Arab street the notion that at least one Arab country, Iraq, has weapons of mass destruction that can balance Israel's is very popular. Moreover, the daily Arab TV diet of pictures of the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli retaliations has produced a gut desire on the Arab street to poke a finger in America's eye.

Finally, the Arab street no longer accepts the logic of sanctions - that if you squeeze Iraq long enough the Iraqi people will oust Saddam. It is widely felt that Arab leaders can never be ousted by the "people." It never happens in this neighborhood. As one Qatari intellectual said to me: "If your sanctions on Castro have not worked for 40 years to get rid of him, and he is right next to you, why do you believe that they will work to get rid of Saddam?" For the most part, the Iraqi opposition groups (funded by the U.S.) are viewed as corrupt outsiders who would be rejected by the Iraqi body politic in the unlikely event they ever did oust Saddam.

Bottom line: If Colin Powell tries really hard, launches a real P.R. campaign against Saddam, he might be able to hold together the sanctions long enough to get them lifted in an orderly way and replaced by a U.N. ban on all military sales to Iraq. If you think otherwise, well, I have some lakefront property on the Saudi-Qatari border I'd like to sell you.

More Information on a Turning Point for Iraq
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq


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