Middle East

The last (diplomatic) Arab dance

By Pepe Escobar

CAIRO - At the white corridors of the Arab League headquarters in downtown Cairo, diplomats are trying to convince themselves: war is not inevitable. Very much aware of the serious political and economic costs for the Arab world in the event of war, many believe (or want to believe) that there will be a negotiated solution.

There is also hope that Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou - currently holding the rotating European Union presidency - is ready to participate in a proposed Arab peace mission to Baghdad. Following a Lebanese idea, the Arab League is preparing a crucial summit of foreign ministers this weekend in Cairo that will make a last-ditch attempt to find a peaceful solution for the Iraqi crisis. In Baghdad, meanwhile, Saddam Hussein's son Uday also supported an urgent summit in the pages of his newspaper Babel.

The meeting will also prepare for the next Arab League summit, which was scheduled for late March in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, but will now be held in Cairo in late February. Reflecting the deep divisions within the Arab world, Bahrain, along with Qatar, is one of the US bases from which jets will strike Iraq. Sensing the drama, diplomats from Bahrain requested that the summit be moved from Manama.

The foreign ministers' summit on the weekend will examine every possible avenue that could help convince the United States that essentially the "game" is not over yet. They will certainly agree on sending a peace mission to Baghdad to urge Saddam and his leadership to do everything possible to strip the US of every possible pretext for war. In the meantime, frantic non-stop diplomacy continues. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak received Jordan's King Abdullah on Friday and Syrian leader Bashar Assad and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi on Sunday to coordinate a common Arab position.

The key date remains this Friday - February 14 - when the United Nations' chief weapons inspectors present their new report to the Security Council. Arab diplomats are aware that the key problem remains what "Iraqi cooperation" means for the US, and on the other hand what it means for the European Union, Russia, and the Arab world. As much as the Arabs are desperately trying to find a peaceful solution, not knowing whether they will succeed, there are plenty of realists. One diplomat remarks that "we also have to work with the Americans and others on securing the fate and future of some Iraqi officials if they decide to abandon power. This will be a very difficult task." Another official adds: "In most diplomatic and decision-making quarters now, the line is that war is inevitable and we have to think of the day after Saddam."

The Gulf War is known by many as "The Mother of all Battles". Now there is a pervasive fear all over the Arab world that the real thing was not in 1991, but the imminent 2003 replay. This time, the war will be inside Iraq itself. The eastern flank of the Arab nation will be invaded by a Western army - for the first time since 1956, when Britain, France and Israel tried to overthrow then Egyptian president Gamal Abd El-Nasser. It was a US president, Dwight Eisenhower, who forced them to withdraw. Nasser remained in power. His fierce enemy, British prime minister Anthony Eden, was confined to the dustbin of history. This time, Arabs fear that there are de facto no checks and balances - be they from a disunited Europe, Russia, what still passes for international law or from the Arabs themselves - to oppose the grand designs of the hawks in Washington on the Middle East.

One of these hawks, Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Policy Advisory Board, as much as declared war in a speech last Tuesday in New York: "Iraq is going to be liberated by the United States and whoever wants to join us, whether or not we get the approbation of the UN or any other institution." No matter the spinning about "liberation", or how efficient will be a policy of democracy imposed by bombing, Arab leaders and public opinion basically retain the fact that what is at stake is the complete destruction of a modern state and its structures of power. This means the killing or capture of the Iraqi leadership and the occupation of an entire country that could last for years. Many will rejoice at the complete elimination of the Ba'ath Party, the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard and sinister security organizations such as the Jihaz al-Amn al-Khas (the Special Security Organization) and the Himayat al-Rais (the Presidential Protection Unit) - although few can even imagine what structures will fill the void.

Dr Mohamed Sayed Tantaoui, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar - a leading theological authority in Egypt - has condemned the US adventure as "illegal". He asks, "What sins have these people committed so their lives will be sacrificed for a corrupted regime?" The sheikh demands that no Arab or Muslim country should help foreign forces bent on attacking Iraq. His position is very clear: "Our refusal of any aggression against the Iraqi people, children, women and the elderly doesn't mean that we defend the Iraqi regime. We want to defend the Muslim Iraqi population, which is part of the Arab and Muslim world." But echoes from some of the 2 million pilgrims now engaged in the hajj in Mecca are unmistakable: there's nothing Muslims can do to prevent a war, and the Americans will attack soon after the end of the hajj this Saturday.

If the so-called six-way conference on Iraq recently held in Istanbul is any guide, the meeting in Cairo is also doomed to failure. In Istanbul - which was the seat of power for the Ottoman Empire - Arabs, Turks and Persians sat down together for the first time in years. As with the foreign ministers in Cairo next weekend, the six foreign ministers from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey went to Istanbul trying to react to a chain of events that they simply could not control. There was a perception of an irrelevant Third World meeting where delegates discuss what is imposed on them, and cannot make any sovereign decisions. Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul admitted, "We expect that war, should one take place, will make us all losers." Gul described how he was trapped by two irresistible forces: the United States, Turkey's key ally for half a century, and the Turkish population, 90 percent against a US war on Iraq.

So Ankara did what Cairo will do next weekend: frantic diplomacy trying to prevent war, and at the same time preparations to follow the leader in the event that war is inevitable. The real picture behind the current diplomatic frenzy by Arab leaders and diplomats is the necessity by certain key countries - Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia - to find political cover and not attract America's wrath in a post-Saddam Middle East; at the same time, they have to show their public - who are almost universally against the war - that they are trying to do something.

A joint Saudi-Egyptian plan discussed in Istanbul is bound to be resuscitated in Cairo. This calls for a peace mission to be sent to Baghdad (the Cairo summit will approve the idea). This mission will try to persuade Saddam Hussein to accept by all means each and any demand by the Americans.

This would mean, for instance, getting rid of all remaining chemical and biological weapons, disbanding the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, holding free elections, joining a new version of the Arab-Israeli peace process and trying Iraqi war criminals before an international war-crimes tribunal. It's extremely unlikely that Saddam will agree to any of these proposals. In this case, the mission could try to persuade Saddam to step down, and then a general - presumably not a member of the Ba'ath Party - would take power, a case of "regime change lite".

The Istanbul summit was a platform for Turkey to play it both ways - on the diplomatic and also the military front. In Istanbul, Turkey exerted pressure on Saddam's regime just before Iraq was finally under total military encirclement; it allowed certain key Arab and Muslim countries to get on board the war wagon, under the pretext that these countries did everything to save the Iraqi regime, but Iraq refused; and it started positioning itself for the post-Ottoman New Middle Eastern Order.

So in this sense Turkey at the Istanbul meet was and remains one step ahead of the Arabs in Cairo. Turkey resigned itself to the seemingly inevitable: a new, US-imposed order revolving around Israel, Turkey, Jordan and - the jewel in the crown - Iraq after Saddam, an order later to be extended to other Arab regimes by persuasion or by force. Cairo is still trying to salvage the past.

The Arab tragedy may be that an independent Arab order built after World War II has not been strong or united enough to prevent foreign attack and control. The order, not the game, is over.

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Feb 11, 2003

All quiet on the Arab street 
(Feb 7, '03)

The UN game and the logic of war (Feb 4, '03)


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