On 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait. The crisis threw regional and international powers into a series of alliances and arrangements that conferred the mandates for action on two men: George Bush Sr and Saddam Hussein.
Just over a decade later, on 11 September 2001, the US suffered the first mainland strike in its history, leaving behind an unprecedented toll of death and destruction. Reeling from the shock, the world again formed alliances and drew battle lines, again placing the reins into the hands of two men — this time, George Bush Jr and Osama Bin Laden.
While in 1990, Bush Sr confronted the head of one of the major members of the Arab League, today Bush Jr has pitted himself against a man with no official capacity, heading an organisation that enjoys no international recognition, except, perhaps, by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Yet, finding themselves in the spotlight, both Saddam and Bin Laden claimed to speak on behalf of the Arab and Islamic peoples; Saddam as a self-appointed leader of pan-Arab nationalism and Bin Laden as a self- appointed leader in the so-called Islamic nation’s jihad against the US.
On both occasions, too, although the Arab and Muslim peoples were the most immediately affected by the crises, they were never in a position to choose the place or time of the ensuing battle or the methods of conducting it. Indeed, it almost seemed that they were dragged helplessly to the front in a war they did not want. In 1990, they had to choose between Bush Sr and Saddam Hussein; today, between Bush Jr and Bin Laden. There was no middle ground. Not much of a choice, one might say, and with good reason. Yet the very fact that the confrontation escalated in a manner compelling us to make such choices underscores a profound crisis in Washington’s relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds, and the lack of a responsible and effective leadership capable of steering Arabs and Muslims through their relations with a world that has come to form the primary threat to their interests.
In the 50-odd years since it first became directly involved in the affairs of the Middle East following World War II, the US’s actions have spoken for themselves. It has become abundantly clear that US policy in the region has been guided exclusively by two concerns: securing Arab petroleum sources and promoting the Israeli Zionist enterprise. To these ends, the US has mobilised enormous energy and resources, with little heed for the sensitivities of the peoples of the region and their aspirations for development, stability and peaceful coexistence as independent nations. It is little wonder, given this record, that Arab and Islamic peoples find it difficult to swallow Washington’s assertion that its problem is not with the Arabs or Muslims but with “terrorism” and “extremism,” and that as soon as it eliminates this problem it will turn its attention to other outstanding regional issues, including the Palestinian cause.
The Arab peoples remember only too clearly the time when Saddam Hussein was the US’s champion in the war against the Islamic revolution in Iran. They recall, too, that Bin Laden was once a top ally in the US- sponsored “jihad” against the “atheist” Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Arabs and Muslims have also learned that, once Saddam and Bin Laden have performed their functions and begin to demand compensation for their services, the US repays them in a most vitriolic currency.
It was glaringly obvious that the US turned against Saddam first to protect Israel’s security, and then to blackmail the countries of the Gulf. In no small measure thanks to US and Western military and financial support, Saddam emerged from the Iraq-Iran war much more powerful than was intended. Now that Iran had surrendered, his military might posed a major threat to Israel; it therefore had to be dismantled. Kuwait was the bait and Saddam fell neatly into the trap. Instead of helping him extricate himself, other Arab leaders scrambled to save the bait, and thus tumbled in after him. The result was the war to “liberate” Kuwait that decimated Iraqi forces, left Saddam in place as an ogre with which to intimidate the Gulf, and justified the prolonged sanctions ensuring that Iraq was removed permanently from the equation in the Arab- Israeli conflict.
Just as the US used Saddam to deliver a lethal blow to the Arab world when it seemed on the point of overcoming its long-standing divisions, so too — many Arabs and Muslims have begun to feel — it used Bin Laden to undermine the Islamic revival and the spirit of resistance that had begun to emerge in Lebanon and Palestine. Not long after the “jihad” against the Soviets in Afghanistan had served its purpose, Bin Laden discovered that his sponsors had established military bases in his homeland. Feeling deceived and insulted, the Saudi millionaire resumed the jihad, this time turning it against the powers he accuses of defiling the Islamic holy places.
The US, which, having created Bin Laden and the “Afghan Arabs” he commanded, was in a position to know quite a bit about them, had no qualms against using them to pressure moderate Arab regimes to make more concessions in Israel’s favour. The US never imagined that it would have to pay for its policies. It did not dream that any power on earth could deliver such a blow as that of 11 September.
Now, in the wake of the catastrophe, the US has dusted off its ultimatum to Arab and Muslim rulers, and to the rest of the world. They are with the US or against it; they are, more precisely, with Bush Jr or with Bin Laden. Arabs and Muslims cannot and should not be forced to make this choice. Their own legacy of pain and tragedy allows them to condemn the attacks on New York and Washington, commiserate deeply with the anguish of the families of the victims and understand the need to bring the perpetrators to justice. Their own experience of US policy, however, also gives them every right to suspect that the spirit of vengeance motivating the current “war on terror” will be exploited to serve political ends and settle old accounts with opponents of US foreign policy who had nothing to do with 11 September.
Had the US truly wished to eliminate the root causes of terrorism, it would not have launched its assault against Afghanistan before investigations had ascertained the identities of all individuals and organisations responsible for the suicide hijackings. Nor would it have insisted on forming an international alliance outside the framework of the UN to pursue its own agenda.
The attack on Afghanistan cannot possibly be passed off as an act of legitimate self-defence. The appalling crime committed against the American people on 11 September was perpetrated on US territory, using US- made instruments, by individuals subject, by virtue of residence, to US law. It does not qualify as a foreign invasion that would justify a military response on the grounds of self-defence. Moreover, if the US Security Council issued a resolution ordering the Taliban government to hand over Bin Laden and take measures against Al-Qa’ida, that resolution did not give anyone a mandate to wage war on Afghanistan. In terms of international law, therefore, the US-UK attack on that country can only be considered an unjustifiable act of aggression.
The message delivered to the head of the Security Council stating that the US “may be forced to extend the scope of its military operations beyond Afghanistan” betrays both the US’s designs and its highhanded attitude. Washington did not ask the UN for permission to launch its assault against Afghanistan, in keeping with the provisions of international law. It simply notified the Security Council of its intention, as though that body were no more than an extension of Washington’s bureaucracy, and served only to guarantee Washington a free hand in punishing as it sees fit.
This attitude and its consequences are extremely dangerous. International terrorism threatens the whole of human civilisation and a united international stance is more necessary than ever to stop it. Pressing ahead with the war on Afghanistan in defiance of international law will inevitably arouse greater tension between the US and the Islamic world, and further sideline the UN at a time when US-Muslim and US-UN relations desperately need to be strengthened.
As tragic as the events of 11 September were, US decision-making circles and thinktanks should have paused for some honest introspection before casting the blame elsewhere. The US is in large part to blame for the spread of religious extremism in the Islamic world, on the one hand, and for undermining the efficacy of the UN, on the other. Certainly, Israel has been instrumental in luring it down that path. Through its blind, absolute support for Israel, no matter who is in power there, the US has actively contributed to isolating the forces of peace and moderation inside Israel, encouraging Zionist extremism and, consequently, exacerbating Islamic extremism in response. Once the US realises this, it will have begun the true war on terror.
The writer is head of the Political Science Department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.