GSN View – The USA must come to terms with the fact that the 1990-91 coalition no longer exists

Gulf States Newsletter issue 682 - 20 March 2002
Outside a few close allies such as the UK—itself deeply divided over the question—the USA finds itself isolated on the Bush Administration’s apparent determination to move on Iraq as quickly as possible to promote the “war against terrorism”. Vice President Dick Cheney’s Middle East tour and the EU’s Barcelona summit have underlined the growing gulf in comprehension. This was underlined by the fact that as Cheney flew out of Abu Dhabi, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s veteran fixer Izzat Ibrahim flew in. The American and Iraqi number twos could almost have crossed paths on the airport red carpet.

That is the measure of the USA’s diplomatic challenge in its struggle to convince Arab governments of the case for direct intervention to bring about regime change in Baghdad. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow the USA to use its strategically important bases was unsurprising. But the blunt terms in which the message was conveyed by Crown Prince Abdallah Bin Abdelaziz at talks in Jeddah, and expressed publicly, may have taken even Cheney aback. The Saudis believe Washington should focus its effort on United Nations sanctions rather than threats of military action, which all Arab governments fear would increase the risk of destabilising the region.

Washington has been mounting a massive diplomatic campaign on several fronts. Cheney’s tour was preceded by those of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Deputy Commerce Secretary Samuel Bodman (whose missions are reported in this issue of GSN). General Paul Mikolashek from US Central Command (ARCENT) visited Doha for talks with Qatari Chief-of-Staff Major-General Hamad Bin Ali Al-Attiya. Most potent in this charm offensive, back at the U.N. in New York, the USA took everyone by surprise by moving to press for a resolution accepting the principle of recognition for a future Palestinian state. At the same time, it presented satellite photo evidence purporting to show that the Iraqis had converted trucks imported under the Oil-for-Food Programme from humanitarian to military use.

None of this appears to have swayed GCC opinions—nor, understandably, those of countries with historic ties with Iraq, such as Jordan and Yemen. “Saudi Arabia will not allow the United States to use its territory to hit Iraq because this would constitute a catastrophe for the region in general and a threat to the security and stability of the area,” Riyadh’s official briefers said Cheney was told by Abdallah. The Bush Administration was told it should “substitute” its intended strike with “international efforts that would be conducive to forcing Iraq to implement the resolutions of international legitimacy.” UAE President Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan was quick to make similar feelings plain to Cheney and the media. Ibrahim’s visit was given nearly as much prominence in the UAE press as Cheney’s.

It brought home an uncomfortable fact for the USA—that the coalition that George H Bush, Cheney, Colin Powell & Co. put together in 1990-91 no longer exists. Saddam Hussein’s survivability at the expense of his people’s misery and Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon’s assault on the Palestinian Authority have seen to that. Saddam has not recently attacked a GCC member state, while relations between Iraq (and Iran) and the GCC have improved immeasurably (as shown in this issue of GSN’s MiddleEast Insider supplement). This process has been paralleled by a rapprochement between Iran and the EU 11 September changed many things. But as Cheney found on his tour around Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, before ending in Israel and Turkey, it did not change the Arab mindset.


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