Middle East Diplomacy After the Gulf War

Courtesy Reuters

The war in the Persian Gulf unleashed powerful-and contradictory-forces in the Middle East. The fundamental premise of American policy was that defeating Saddam Hussein would discredit radicalism, strengthen moderates and enhance regional stability. On the other hand, the war, as long as it lasted, was bound to sow the seeds of future resentments and turbulence. There was a new sentiment in the Middle East that more democratic forms of government were needed; yet a new impetus was also given to Islamic forces in almost every country in the region. Will the United States be in a position, now that the war is over, to shape the trends in a period of enormous fluidity? Or will it be riding a tornado? There is pressure to redouble efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. But will the conditions for a successful effort be propitious, or not?


During the first gulf war-the eight-year struggle between Iraq and Iran-Iraq was driven by necessity into an alignment with the Arab moderates, America's friends. This move helped make possible Egypt's reentry into the Arab fold; it also assured Syria's isolation, preventing Syria from capitalizing on the American debacle in Lebanon. Situated between radical Syria and Iran, Iraq seemed to have a durable reason for this more constructive orientation.

When that war ended in the summer of 1988, that regional state of affairs flew apart with remarkable speed.

One crucial development was the surprising weakness of both Syria and Iran. At various times in the past, it had been Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had their pictures on weekly newsmagazine covers as the most dangerous men in the world. Over time, however, Syria had been deflated by the cumulative effect of its economic weakness, its Lebanon quagmire, its humiliation by the Soviets (who rejected Syria's bid for strategic parity with Israel) and even the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories, which punctured Assad's claims to be a major player in the Palestinian game.


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