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Mediterranean Quarterly 17.3 (2006) 12-25

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Plain Talk about Iraq

The Iraq problem confronting the United States today began in the Arab world and continues there. Surely the great majority of Arabs are Muslims, but the source of the crisis in Iraq is Arab. As Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan writes in his 1995 memoir, Desert Warrior, King Fahd's "first instinct" was to attempt a solution of the Iraq-Kuwait dispute over oil production in 1990 through mediation among Arab brothers, but after two days of such efforts he saw no use in continuing. Nonetheless, having been given personal assurances by Saddam Hussein that he would not attack Kuwait, the king was shocked and troubled when he received news of the Iraqi invasion at 2:00 A.M. on 2 August 1990. Into what began as an inter-Arab crisis the United States moved massive military forces at the king's invitation, a decision that was to lead in subsequent years to deep religious unrest in the kingdom and beyond and, ultimately, became a major underlying cause for 11 September 2001. The outcome of the 1990–91 war, into which all the Arab world was swept on one side or the other, proved indecisive as far as Saddam's ambitions were concerned, thereby leading to the American invasion of Iraq and his toppling in 2003.

Unlike in the Desert Storm war of the early 1990s, the United States has occupied Iraq itself, and without a comprehensive Arab policy. The George W. Bush administration, upon taking office in 2001, trumpeted its disdain for the hyperactivity of previous American presidencies in the area of a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, which has always been a common concern of all Arab governments and a preoccupation of pan-Arab sentiment. [End Page 12] Within the new administration the prevailing orthodoxy was to put Middle East peacemaking aside in favor of other world priorities that, ironically, seemed to include the very terrorism nurtured by the long Palestinian struggle. In any case, it was argued that eventually the Arabs would come to their senses when faced with the superior power of America and its Israeli ally. Besides, the ideal of Arab unity, especially after Israel's smashing victory in the June 1967 war, was chimerical.

What I present in this essay is a discussion of problems confronting a great power without an Arab policy, the United States, which has invaded and occupied a major Arab country and now searches for a way out. It is not a pretty picture.


Plain talk is needed about certain realities in the American occupation of Iraq. Those realities include the following:

  1. The United States is the occupying power in Iraq, pure and simple. Under these circumstances we are an unwelcome guest among Iraqis. Even our "friends" there want a timetable for our withdrawal.
  2. The role of an occupying power is one of rule through brute force, not through political subtlety. For example, manipulation by occupation authorities of Kurdish support for the invasion inevitably becomes so complicated that it no longer provides, in multiethnic Iraq, enough legitimacy to obviate the continued use of this force. In a word, the United States in Iraq has the tiger by the tail.
  3. Our "enemies"—their existence being our rationale for occupying Iraq—are not well defined, but let's say they include Saddam and his Baath Party inner circle (and some not so "inside") and surely those who resist our imposed occupation by their own force, the so-called insurgents (our view) or resistance (a common Arab view).
  4. Occupation policies of raw force have effects that extend well beyond specifically targeted enemies to include the Iraqi population at large as it becomes swept up in the violence we initiated with our invasion. This wider involvement ranges from ordinary families whose homes are routinely [End Page 13] invaded by American and other coalition forces to bystanders in the street.
  5. 5In a word, there is no genuinely benign face to the American occupation of Iraq, which itself is unprecedented in that it is...


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