Of all the participants in the debate over U.S. military action to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, one important voice has been unfortunately absent: the voice of Arab friends of the U.S.
Many in the Arab world, myself included, have lived in America and gone back to their countries with only the best of recollections and experiences. Arab friends of the U.S. would like America to reclaim the mantle of champion of democracy and human rights that it so clearly possessed during the two World Wars of the 20th Century. An invasion of Iraq would undermine Arab hopes to see the U.S. in this role.
America was urged to enter the "great wars" by the world's beleaguered democracies. The present situation is entirely different, as almost every nation in the world is calling on the U.S. not to invade Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, America's closest Arab allies, have sent their heads of state and their foreign ministers to Washington to try to dissuade President Bush from a venture that is likely to harm U.S. interests, as well as those of Arab countries. In a rare and historic confluence, the public and private discourses of Arab leaders on Iraq are unambiguously the same, as the governments' political priorities, for once, reflect the views and concerns of their citizens. Given the emphasis on democracy promotion as part of the war on terrorism, why does the U.S. ignore the view of the vast majority of Arabs?
Arabs anxious to see the U.S. champion human rights abroad also are puzzled by U.S. inattention to the human costs of a strike on Iraq. There has been, of course, concern about minimizing casualties among U.S. soldiers. To address these concerns, some strategists are proposing a military plan called "Baghdad First." According to leaks in American papers, the U.S. forces would start with a campaign against Baghdad to dislodge or destroy the best forces of Hussein and then kill or capture him. Given the fact that no one knows exactly where Hussein hides and that Iraqi troops have no qualms about using Baghdad's 4.5 million inhabitants as human shields in urban combat, it becomes easy to imagine the extent of the human tragedy "Baghdad First" would cause. The painful, yet unavoidable, conclusion of most Arabs, especially Arab youth, is that the U.S. is prepared to simply shrug off significant Iraqi civilian casualties.
Of course, many counter that U.S. military intervention would end the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and, therefore, guarantee democracy and human rights for Iraqis. Perhaps because these American pundits and politicians have never faced the horrific military might of the United States from the outside, they can dismiss the human costs among Iraqi civilians that will proceed this regime change. They also ignore the likelihood that the successor regime in Iraq will replicate that of Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai can hardly impose his will outside of the capital and is obliged to rely on foreign troops for protection.
To be frank, few people in the Arab world really believe that Iraq, after 11 years of UN sanctions, still constitutes a threat to the United States. Most U.S. military experts believe that the Iraqi military has been severely weakened since the Gulf War, while there has been constant improvement in U.S. capacities. The fear of U.S. retaliation is such that Iraq will not use weapons of mass destruction or provide them to terrorists; a decade ago that fear kept Iraq from using its weapons of mass destruction stockpile on allied forces. These weapons are meant, rather, to ensure balance of power vis-a-vis Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran, and, sadly enough, to ensure regime survival.
If America, instead of launching war on Hussein, pursues peace in Iraq and the Middle East by promoting economic development, then democracy would leap forward. In the case of Iraq, the end of the current sanctions regime in favor of successor sanctions that could less easily be turned against the Iraqi people would leave Saddam Hussein alone to bear the blame for oppressing his citizens. America's Arab friends would once again recognize the true champion of democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Tribune.