Despite Washington’s recent diplomatic scramble to get support for its “war on terrorism,” getting key Arab countries on board remains an unfinished task. This became clear during US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s tour earlier this month of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Rumsfeld’s efforts were received tepidly by Washington’s Arab allies.
Rumsfeld’s trip began on October 3 in Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with Saudi officials, including king Fahd, crown prince Abdallah, and his Saudi counterpart, prince Sultan. He then hurried to meetings with the leaders of Oman and Egypt. All three countries are important politically and geographically for the US strikes against Afghanistan. He then travelled to Uzbekistan, where he secured an agreement for the use of an airbase by US cargo-planes, helicopters and troops for “humanitarian and rescue” operations, but not for attacks against Afghan territory. In Turkey, on the last leg of his tour, Rumsfeld held talks with prime minister Bulent Ecevit and military leaders.
Saudi Arabia is the US’s main ally in the Gulf region. It hosts a large force of US combat aircraft at a desert airbase, and reportedly has an air operations centre that can be used to direct air-strikes throughout the region. In addition it has for several years allowed US forces to conduct patrols and strikes over Iraq from its territory. Yet the kingdom has been reluctant to allow the use of military facilities on its territory for attacks on Afghanistan. The Saudi defence minister recently expressed this reluctance explicitly when he warned that the kingdom would “not accept the presence of any troops on its territory to fight Arabs and Muslims.”
Rumsfeld described the purpose of his tour as to hold “consultations” rather than to discuss support for a US-led military action. He said that he had come to the region to press US allies for “actionable intelligence”: information that might help to asphyxiate bin Ladin’s supposed network. He also said that he discussed ways to contain “secondary effects” of an American action, apparently a reference to the possibility of a popular backlash.
Although he pledged his support, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak told reporters that Egypt “will not take part with troops.” Mubarak also distinguished between the current crisis and the second gulf war (1991), when Egyptian troops helped to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. “I sent troops to the Gulf because there was an Arab joint defence pact, and that was with the approval of parliament,” he said. “We cannot send our children, without reason, just to fight somewhere.”
Several factors contribute to the reluctance of America’s Arab allies to take part in a military action against Afghanistan. These regimes are concerned that taking such a course would cause them problems domestically. These are governments that are dependent upon repression or the flimsy structure of personal rule; they can never be sure of their ability to motivate or control their peoples. Such regimes always teeter on the brink of collapse, and they are wary of discontent that might be provoked by their participation in a US-led campaign against a Muslim country.
There is great unease in the Arab “street” and intellectual circles at the hubris of the Americans’ belief that the US alone now has a special responsibility to free the world of ‘terrorism’. This is rivalled only by the Arabs’ unease over the Americans’ ubiquitous double standards. Moreover, there is already strong opposition within Saudi Arabia to the presence of American troops there, which have been present continuously since 1990. The stationing of non-Muslim troops in the Arabian Peninsula figures prominently on the list of grievances voiced by Usama bin Ladin against the West.
There are also concerns about the scope of Bush’s “war on terrorism.” All the Arab governments (except Iraq) have declared their support for Washington. But many have expressed reservations about the likelihood that the US will attack Arab countries. Speaking to reporters on October 2, Arab League secretary-general Amr Musa warned that any attack on an Arab country would harm the coalition. A strike on an Arab country “will lead to a very serious situation across the Middle East and would harm any idea of international cooperation or alliance or coalition,” Musa said.
Nor has America’s woolly concept of “terrorism” helped to dispel these apprehensions; if anything, statements that Washington might target Arab countries, such as Iraq and Syria, as part of its campaign, have heightened them. Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara’a expressed these worries at a joint press conference on October 2 with his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer: he reiterated his country’s determination “to help international efforts to combat terrorism”, but added that Damascus opposes “any hidden agenda for any country. We have to be frank and open about what we are going to do in the future.”
There is also the knotty problem of defining terrorism. Syria, which is on an official US list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, has been asking the UN to sponsor an international conference to agree a definition of terrorism that distinguishes between acts of terrorism and the legitimate right of peoples to resist occupation. Syrian officials have reportedly told an EU delegation that any fight against terrorism must not deny the Arabs “their right to resist Israel.”
Bush’s recent ostensible change of heart on the question of Palestine is partly an attempt to sidestep some of these concerns. Bush told reporters on October 2: “The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a [US] vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected.” Washington has also tried to make Israel maintain a ceasefire with the Palestinians. This raised the ire of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, who warned the US not to try to coax the Arab countries into the coalition at its expense. His remarks caused fury in the White House and triggered a brief spate of recriminations between Washington and its closest ally.
Bush’s endorsement of a Palestinian state was hailed throughout most of the Arab world. PNA chairman Yasser Arafat thanked the US for its position, “which is the cornerstone for…peace in the Middle East.” Egyptian foreign minister Ahmad Maher said that Bush’s remarks “consolidated chances of reaching a fair peace.” Such remarks show a warped optimism or a deep-seated naivity among Arab leaders.
In fact, Bush’s apparent u-turn is little more than semantics. The Palestinian state he ‘envisioned’ is likely to be little more than that proposed in the Oslo peace process, and severely hemmed in by subsequent concessions forced on the Palestinians by agreements over the last decade. In the past, Washington has been more concerned with appeasing Israel than with Arab opinion; now, for the time being, its priorities are different. What any of its present statements will mean in practice, once the shouting has died down, remains to be seen.