A year ago it was plausible to point to the declining salience of the Middle East in world affairs, particularly in contrast to the upheavals of central Europe. How, then, did it happen that in early 1991 the United States found itself at war with Iraq, with aircraft, carriers and some 400,000 troops in the Persian Gulf? And how did the price of oil more than double in the course of the past year?

The immediate answer to these questions is that Saddam Hussein of Iraq upset the patterns of Middle East politics by his reckless invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. But there is more to the story. The apparently frozen landscape of the Middle East-no progress toward Arab-Israeli peace, no economic success stories, no impressive strides toward democratization, no new and inspiring leaders-may have given a false illusion of stability; in fact it merely masked political currents with explosive potential.

Throughout the region one could hear voices expressing deep frustration with the failure of politicians to grapple with severe economic and social problems. No regime seemed immune from popular disaffection. Everywhere Islamic movements were trying to capitalize on these frustrations, sometimes with success, by sounding the simple slogan "Islam is the solution." It was hardly necessary to mention what the problems were-there were so many to choose from: poverty, injustice, cultural alienation, lack of respect for human rights, corruption, violence.

The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza had already revealed the anger and frustration of Palestinians, especially the youth, with the existing order in the Arab world and with the daily irritations and humiliations of the Israeli occupation. But for all the enthusiasm unleashed by the intifada in its first years, few tangible gains had been made and Palestinians were openly debating the merits of reverting to a strategy of "armed struggle." Elsewhere in the region, notably in Algeria and Jordan, popular demonstrations shook the self-confidence of regimes that were struggling to prevent economic deterioration.


This potentially volatile mixture of political sentiments in the region was compounded, at least among Arabs, by a perception that the Cold War's end would work to their disadvantage. Speaking to other Arab leaders in Amman in February, Saddam Hussein rang the warning bell. In a somewhat rambling speech, he argued that the decades of Cold War had assured the Arabs of Soviet support against an imperialist West and an expansionist Zionist state. But the situation had now radically changed. Drawing attention to a weakened Soviet Union, he proceeded to warn that the United States would be in a strong position for the next five years, during which time it would encourage Israeli aggression. The Americans, he predicted, would use their leverage with the Soviets to press for "an unprecedented exodus of Soviet Jews to Palestinian territory." He then decried the feeble Arab reaction to these dangers, reminding his audience that the ultimate target of the Americans was Arab oil.

Having painted this menacing picture of an American-Israeli conspiracy against Arab interests, Saddam Hussein asserted that "we saw that the United States as a superpower departed Lebanon immediately when some Marines were killed." Since then, the United States "has displayed some signs of fatigue." In closing, Saddam made a standard appeal for Arab unity. By all accounts the speech touched a nerve in many parts of the Arab world. It was scarcely noted in Washington.1

It is impossible to know with certainty whether Saddam Hussein had already decided to invade Kuwait at this time. But he was making a bid for leadership in the Arab world and he was finding a positive response, if not among the established regimes, at least on the street. In many ways Saddam was emulating a much more imposing figure from recent Arab history, Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt. Like Nasser, Saddam implied that there was a void in the Arab world that could only be filled by a strong leader.

Saddam Hussein's credentials as a new Nasser, or as a Saladin preparing to confront the modern-day crusaders, were not particularly impressive. Until recently, few in the Arab world would have thought to look to Baghdad for leadership or inspiration. His regime was seen as brutal, even by Middle East standards.2 In addition, the Iraqi Baath Party had a secularist message and elitist structure that seemed out of step with mass-based Islamic political trends in the region.

Saddam had no great vision to impart to the Arab masses, although he had shrewdly manipulated their grievances. His answer to the problems of Arab society was a simple one-power, or in somewhat more glamorous wording, an "independent Arab will." And perhaps for people who feel vulnerable and on the margins of history, this may be enough. Certainly Saddam was no great orator. Despite the cult of personality surrounding him in Baghdad, he had little charismatic appeal beyond Iraq's borders. Nor could he point to great victories on the battlefield. On the contrary, he led his country into an enormously costly war with Iran in 1980, and ten years later was obliged to yield the meager gains from that conflict. Iraq, which had all the ingredients to become a relatively modern and prosperous country in the late 1970s, was poised once again in 1990 to tackle its internal problems. But its hero-leader mortgaged his country's future for the second time by his grab for Kuwait's wealth.

It is hard to see how Iraq can emerge from this war except in a severely weakened state. Saddam Hussein's military strength is shattered. Iraq is likely to be kept under some form of international quarantine until its power to threaten its neighbors is eliminated. So if there are winners to be found as a result of Saddam's flawed bid for power, they are, ironically, most likely to be his worst enemies-Iran, Syria, Egypt and, perhaps, even Israel.


What, other than raw ambition, has fueled Saddam's drive for hegemony? First, but not necessarily most important, was a severe economic crisis that was beginning to hurt in early 1990. Saddam had managed to pursue a "guns and butter" policy throughout the entire Iran-Iraq War, thanks in large measure to subsidies from the states of the Persian Gulf and credits from the West. But with the end of the war in mid-1988, Iraq was no longer able to extort such high payoffs from its neighbors, and the price of its only export, oil, was comparatively low, partly due to high levels of production elsewhere in the gulf.

In theory, Iraq might have managed the economic pressures by trimming its costly military program, by tightening its belt, and by intimidating its brethren in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to curtail their production in order to push prices higher. Such a policy might have allowed Iraq to meet debt repayments to its Western creditors and gradually get its economy back on track. Saddam, however, saw a quicker fix for the economic ills of his country-sharply higher oil prices and the vast wealth of Kuwait, including its $100 billion in foreign assets.

By the spring of 1990 he was making his demands known. He wanted Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to write off the billions of dollars of loans extended during the Iran-Iraq War; he wanted Kuwait to come up with an additional $10 billion in aid; he wanted OPEC to push oil prices to $25 per barrel; and he wanted Kuwait to yield two islands that controlled access to Iraq's port at Umm Qasr, as well as to pay some $2.4 billion for oil taken from the Rumailah oil field. At a meeting of the Arab League in May, and later in a letter from his foreign minister, Saddam made these points explicit.3 According to Arab sources, Saddam acknowledged at the Arab League meeting that his demands might sound like blackmail, but he did not care. Iraq was determined to get its way.

There is more to Saddam Hussein's aggression than economic interests. He must have sensed that the relatively conservative political order in the Arab world was faltering. The established regimes had little to show for their efforts. Economic reform and democratization were much discussed by elites, but the reality was that neither had made much headway in the Arab world. Political life was dominated by the same old names, none of whom inspired much confidence. The kings, emirs and presidents were mostly hiding behind the walls of their palaces. The petrodollar binge of the 1970s and early 1980s had left great wealth in the hands of a few rulers, but little in the way of real development. At the mass level, alienation from the state could be felt everywhere, and Islamic movements were poised to exploit these resentments.

Before making his final decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Kuwait, Saddam must have calculated the prospects of both regional and international responses. In Iraq's neighborhood, no one had the military clout to stop him. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars for defense, the Saudis and their small gulf allies could do nothing to help Kuwait once the Iraqi tanks crossed its border. Only the United States might react, but its military capabilities in the gulf region were modest and its stance during the early period of tension between Iraq and Kuwait did not imply a forceful policy.

Saddam must have also calculated that few Arabs would regret the removal of the Sabah family from power in Kuwait. Indeed Iraq had always questioned the legitimacy of an independent Kuwaiti state, so both at home and elsewhere in the Arab world Saddam could present his move as rectifying an historical injustice imposed by British colonialists.

During the Iran-Iraq War Saddam Hussein had courted the keepers of the moderate order in the Arab world, including Kuwait, but now he sought to challenge them. To do so he needed themes capable of attracting mass support. Like Nasser he wanted to be able to intimidate regimes by appealing to popular sentiment. The two issues that he initially chose were the Palestinian cause and Arab weakness, later adding to his list the grievances of the poor against the rich. This proved to be a potent mixture. Not surprisingly, Saddam read the susceptibility of Arab popular opinion to a strong leader relatively well. His mistake was in assuming that the United States would accept a fait accompli, that the Saudis would not ask for foreign military help and that Moscow would not side with Washington.


The Palestinian cause has always been manipulated by Arab regimes. Each Arab leader who has made a bid for regional influence-Egypt's Nasser, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and now Iraq's Saddam Hussein-has presented himself as defender of the Palestinians. Over the years many Palestinians saw through the cynical political games played by the regimes. A healthy distrust of the Arab states was one of the strongest ingredients of the Palestinian nationalist movement identified with Yasir Arafat and his group, Fatah. Arafat, unlike some of his rivals, went to considerable lengths to avoid reliance on any single Arab regime. He prided himself on his ability to take from the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Algerians without becoming beholden to any of them. Only Assad had become a bitter adversary, no longer susceptible to the courting of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Unfortunately for Saddam's ambitions, the Palestinian card in 1989 and early 1990 did not seem to be available. Arafat, with the strong support of Egypt, was engaged in a delicate political maneuver aimed at getting talks under way in Cairo between Israel and a PLO-designated group of Palestinians. The process of working out the details to the satisfaction of both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Arafat was excruciatingly slow, but by late 1989 the Americans and the Egyptians had come up with a formula that appeared promising. Arafat, despite the skepticism of many in his entourage, signed on.

During the first two months of 1990, the United States turned up the pressure on Shamir to deliver an affirmative response to the so-called Baker plan. Within Shamir's own party, hard-line opponents objected strongly to the American proposals, claiming that they were a thinly veiled way for the PLO to get into the game of negotiations. In addition, they argued that the inclusion of Palestinians from east Jerusalem in these talks would jeopardize Israel's claim to the city. Shamir fought off the challenge to his leadership, but only after accepting the essence of the hard-liners' position.

Despite the disarray in Israeli political circles in early 1990, President Bush pressed hard for a positive reply to Baker's queries. In essence Shamir was being asked to go along with a formula for Israeli-Palestinian talks that would have involved the participation of one Palestinian spokesperson with at least a secondary residence in east Jerusalem and one Palestinian living outside the occupied areas. Shamir and his colleagues saw large substantive issues lurking behind these seemingly innocent procedural arrangements, but they did not want to say a blunt no to the United States.

The internal debate came to a head at a meeting of Likud Party leaders on March 3, 1990. Benjamin Begin, the former prime minister's son, had written an influential article opposing the American plan shortly before this meeting. Following debates among his party colleagues, Shamir apparently sided with those who felt that Israel could not accept the Baker proposals. Later that same evening, word reached Israel that President Bush had publicly called on Israel not to settle Soviet Jews in the West Bank or east Jerusalem. Two days later Shamir said that he had no confidence in the United States and would not go along with Baker's plan for peace talks.4

Seeing a political opening, the rival Labor Party threatened to withdraw from the national unity government unless Shamir agreed to the American proposals. In response the prime minister dismissed Labor leader Shimon Peres from the coalition, thereby setting off a political crisis that was to consume the Israeli body politic for months.

For a brief moment it seemed as if Peres might be able to form a narrowly based Labor-led government. But after failing to win support from some small religious parties, Peres was obliged to admit defeat. In June Shamir was finally able to present his Likud-led coalition to the Knesset. By any measure it was the most right-wing government in Israel's history. And the Labor Party was in such disarray that many wondered if it could survive as a significant force in Israeli politics.

In the course of the spring Baker's carefully nurtured initiative came to an end, U.S.-Israeli relations deteriorated and Arafat's moderate stance came under attack from Palestinian extremists on both the left and right. Toward the end of May, just as Shamir was completing the formation of his cabinet, a deranged Israeli soldier massacred seven Palestinian workers on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The PLO pressed for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Hoping to avoid a debate over granting a visa to Arafat, the United States agreed to hold the meeting in Geneva. It seemed to many as if the Bush administration were planning to vote for a resolution that would authorize the Secretary General to investigate the massacre and conditions in the occupied territories.

Just as the resolution was coming to a vote, on May 30, an armed group of Palestinians from the Palestine Liberation Front led by the notorious Abul Abbas (the mastermind behind the hijack in October 1985 of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and a member of the PLO Executive Committee) carried out an abortive strike on the Israeli coast near Tel Aviv. The next day, the United States vetoed the resolution pending before the Security Council. Arafat was reportedly furious.

Bush and Baker had long been criticized for talking to the PLO despite continued terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups. This time the administration could not ignore domestic political pressures. Bush insisted that Arafat denounce and discipline those responsible for the beach attack. Arafat, from Baghdad, denied any direct responsibility but refused to condemn the operation. His spokesmen said that the U.S. veto made it impossible for Arafat to comply. On June 20, more in sorrow than in anger, Bush suspended the U.S.-PLO dialogue.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Iraq had a hand in the Abul Abbas operation, and that the results were exactly what Saddam Hussein desired: an end to the U.S.-PLO dialogue, to the peace process, and to the centrality of Egypt's role as a diplomatic broker. Presumably with the impending gulf crisis already in mind, Saddam Hussein wanted Arafat and the Palestinians in his corner. His April 2 speech threatening Israel with chemical weapons in the event of an Israeli attack on Iraq had already evoked a positive response from Palestinians. Saddam may have threatened Israel, but his eye was already on Kuwait. He wanted the Palestinian card in his hand as the moment of crisis approached.

The tide in the Arab world seemed to be running toward those who had power and promised victory. The mainstream of the PLO was on the defensive. Hamas, a Palestinian group with strong Islamic tendencies, was gaining momentum within the Palestinian movement and was even tactically aligning itself with Arafat's leftist opponents. By moving closer to Saddam, Arafat presumably hoped to quiet some of his critics. In brief, the collapse of the fragile Arab-Israeli peace process played right into Saddam's hands. Indeed it is difficult to imagine his making such an audacious move as the invasion of Kuwait if Israelis and Palestinians had been engaged in peace talks in Cairo, as envisaged in the Baker proposals.


Prime Minister Shamir's rejection of the Baker proposals may well have helped set the stage for Saddam's power play, but it was motivated by a totally different set of concerns. Like every other Israeli prime minister, Shamir was eager to maintain an effective working relationship with the American government. Early in 1989, he had been urged by Bush and Baker to come up with a political initiative to revive the peace process. Shamir produced a four-part proposal that included elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Whereas the Camp David accords had envisaged elections being held for a self-governing body, Shamir called for elections merely to select Palestinians with whom Israel would hold discussions on autonomy. Although nothing was said in the proposal about which Palestinians would be entitled to vote in the elections, Shamir apparently hoped to encourage the emergence of an alternative leadership to that of the PLO.

The Bush administration welcomed Shamir's ideas as a first step. The consensus seemed to be that Shamir was looking for a way out of the impasse on the diplomatic front. As a political realist, it was said, he would agree to deal with Palestinians who represented the PLO position, provided that he was given some face-saving way to justify such a step. This is where elections came in. Privately, administration strategists spoke of getting a process under way through small steps that would gain momentum as time went on, referred to as the "slippery slope" tactic.

Shamir, of course, saw through the administration's approach when it became apparent that his own proposals were being discussed seriously in the U.S.-PLO dialogue. By late 1989 the American position on a number of concrete issues was also moving in the wrong direction, at least from the Likud standpoint. For example, the United States was openly supporting the idea that Palestinians from east Jerusalem should vote in West Bank-Gaza elections. In addition Baker was siding with the PLO demand that at least one member of any Palestinian delegation to preliminary talks should be from outside the occupied territories. Shamir and his colleagues dug in their heels and decided to put an end to the game before it really got started.

One issue that must have influenced Shamir's thinking was the dramatic influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel in 1990. The rapid deterioration of economic conditions in the Soviet Union, coupled with a rise in antisemitism, coincided with an American decision to limit the number of Soviet refugees who could enter the United States. Suddenly Soviet Jews were flocking to Israel, a total of nearly 200,000 in 1990.

One of the strongest arguments of those Israelis who favored relinquishing the West Bank and Gaza was the demographic reality that at some point an Israel that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River would have an Arab majority within its borders. To deal with this prospect Israel would either have to become a binational state or keep the Palestinian majority in a permanent state of second-class citizenship. The only alternatives seemed to be eventual withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza or expulsion of the Palestinians, an option favored openly by a small minority of Israelis.

The influx of Soviet Jews, in numbers that might reach the million mark by the mid-1990s, held out a different possibility. Israel might be able to keep the occupied territories and retain a Jewish majority. Shamir even went a step further and spoke of the need for a "big Israel" to accommodate the new immigrants. This comment set off prolonged wrangling between the United States and Israel over where new immigrants would be settled.

Washington's interest in this issue was focused by an Israeli request for a guarantee of a $400 million housing loan. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration wanted to know where the money would be used. If the money would go to house new immigrants in the occupied territories-which Washington defined as all the territories beyond the "green line" of 1967, including east Jerusalem-then the funds would not be made available. Eventually agreement was supposedly reached and the funds were released, although it soon became clear that the two sides had sharply different interpretations of what was meant by the green line with respect to Jerusalem.

Apart from the demographic impact on Israel, Soviet immigration stimulated fears among Palestinians that their position in their homeland would become even more precarious. It seemed increasingly implausible that Arafat could salvage even a ministate in the West Bank and Gaza for them. Thus, Saddam's bid for power offered a means of checking Israeli expansion that appealed to many Palestinians who were frustrated with the unimpressive results of the PLO's nuanced diplomatic maneuvers.

The new immigrants also cast a heavy shadow on the Israeli political scene. How would they be absorbed? Where would they live? What jobs would be available for them? How would they vote? Some worried about the likely frictions between Sephardic Jews, who tend to occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and the new immigrants, most of whom are white-collar professionals and receive economic benefits upon their arrival. Could Likud be the political home for these two disparate groups? In brief, a new political game is opening in Israel, and much of the country's energies for the foreseeable future will be engaged in absorbing this wave of immigration.

In mid-1990, a private group of Americans visited the Middle East and returned with an influential and reassuring assessment of the situation. Their conclusions, reflecting views they had heard in Israel, was that talk of war was much exaggerated. At the same time prospects for movement in the peace process were dim. The Shamir government, fully preoccupied with the task of absorbing the new immigrants, was not in a belligerent frame of mind, nor was it inclined to pursue new diplomatic initiatives toward the Arabs. But, the analysts noted, the Shamir government might have some surprises up its sleeve.5 As it turned out Saddam Hussein, not Shamir, was the one who had a surprise in mind.


Iraq's aggression, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the massive influx of Soviet Jews to Israel were certainly the defining issues for the Middle East in 1990. But other important developments, less dramatic but also with long-term implications, were taking place in the region.

Some observers who look at the Arab world see only violence, repression and obscurantism. But two of the largest Arab countries, Egypt and Algeria, deserve credit for serious steps toward political pluralism and economic reform. Despite decades of authoritarian government, Egypt has managed to preserve a relatively independent judiciary. In May 1990 the high court ruled on a case involving the legality of the 1987 elections to the People's Assembly. To the surprise of many, it found that there had been serious irregularities and that all legislation passed after mid-year would therefore have no legal standing. President Hosni Mubarak responded by calling for new elections in late November. Some of the opposition parties decided to boycott the elections, but many candidates ran as independents. Candidates supporting Mubarak's National Democratic Party won about three-quarters of the seats, although the elections seem to have attracted little interest among most Egyptians. Still, relatively free parliamentary elections are now becoming a normal part of Egyptian political life.

In addition to increasing respect for the rule of law, the Egyptian regime has been careful to allow a degree of freedom of the press that is rare in the Third World. Egypt still has a long road to travel before joining the ranks of stable democracies, but Mubarak has earned grudging respect for his steps in that direction. With the economy under enormous pressure, Islamic movements gaining ground, and domestic terrorists successfully targeting high government officials, a harsh crackdown on all opposition movements might have been expected. But thus far Mubarak has been careful not to overreact. Indeed, he has moved to ensure that the military will remain subject to civilian control and has removed a very unpopular minister of the interior, Zaki Badr, after repeated public protests about human rights abuses. Still, power remains firmly concentrated in Mubarak's hands, and he has yet to endorse competitive presidential elections.

On the economic front 1990 proved to be an extremely difficult year for Egypt. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Egypt has gradually begun to decontrol food and energy prices. This has inevitably spurred inflationary pressures. By midyear Egypt was very near the point of defaulting on debt repayments to the United States, which could have cost it dearly in terms of future aid flows. In addition, oil revenues were on the wane.

The gulf crisis had an immediate adverse impact on many Egyptians, as hundreds of thousands fled Iraq to the safety of Egypt. But no jobs awaited them upon their return. Offsetting these costs to Egypt, however, were financial contributions from the Saudis and Kuwaitis, who were indebted to Mubarak for his role in mobilizing Arab League support against Iraq and for sending a sizable force to help defend Saudi Arabia. In addition, oil prices temporarily rose, which also helped Egypt's battered economy. Finally, the Bush administration won congressional support for a bill to forgive some $6.7 billion in foreign military sales credits.6 Other countries followed suit, thereby reducing Egypt's huge debt stock by at least $15 billion. With these gains in hand, Mubarak seemed determined to continue with his gradual program of economic reform, and the IMF and World Bank seemed ready to give Egypt a vote of confidence as well.

While Egypt's move toward political and economic reform was fairly steady if slow, Algeria seemed to be hurtling down a similar path in 1990. For years this proud country had flaunted its revolutionary credentials, had clung to its single-party system of government, and had suffered under an inefficient state-run economy. Then in 1989-90, a Middle Eastern version of glasnost and perestroika seemed to take place almost overnight. With remarkable speed a free press replaced the boring official publications. Political parties were allowed to form and more than twenty were soon vying for popularity, ranging from the old left to the new Islamic parties on the right. Local elections were held in mid-1990 and, to the surprise of many and the shock of some, the Islamic party, Le Front Islamique du Salut, won a majority of seats. Despite its obvious unpopularity the government did not retreat. Instead it promised national assembly elections in 1991 and continued to move ahead with serious economic reforms. The country's first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, returned to the country from exile on September 27, hoping to launch a second political career, but seemed disappointed by his reception.

Algeria in 1991 may well provide an early example of what democratization in the Arab world will look like. Some foresee a clean Islamic sweep at the polls, but it is equally likely that some of the other parties will score significant successes. This may lead to coalition politics, where the Islamic movement will have a strong, but not exclusive, voice. Many in the Arab world-and in Europe-will be watching nervously to see how the experiment in Algeria unfolds. If it succeeds in bringing stability and economic progress to the country in the 1990s, and if democratization reaches the level of presidential power, Algeria will truly be living up to its revolutionary credentials.


Elsewhere on the geographic periphery of the Arab world, in the Yemens, the political map was changed by a peaceful merger of the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. Yemeni unity had long been a slogan in both countries, but few believed it could be made a reality, in part because of sharp Saudi opposition, and because of the very different political systems in the two regions. The PDRY was governed by the only avowedly Marxist regime in the Arab world. But this did not obstruct the merger, with the president of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, assuming the same position in the unified state. Unification of the two Yemens in May 1990 created the most populous state on the Arabian peninsula. (Saudi Arabia claims to have a larger population, but few informed observers doubt that Yemenis far outnumber indigenous Saudis in the Arabian peninsula.)

As surprising as Yemeni unity were the terms on which it was carried out. According to initial reports, a degree of freedom reigned in the country, political pluralism was being respected and the human rights situation was improving. Indeed, Yemen was noted by workers for Amnesty International as one of the few countries in the region that was actively cooperating with their missions. As elsewhere in the region, however, real power remained concentrated in the hands of the president.

For Lebanon, 1990 may also be remembered as a year in which cautious steps toward national unity took place. But the cost has been extraordinarily high. The early part of the year was particularly bloody, with the Maronite General Michel Aoun continuing to challenge the government of Elias Hrawi (also a Maronite Christian) and his Syrian backers. This bid to reestablish Christian supremacy in Lebanon and to liberate the country from Syria's domination struck a chord among the frightened masses of the Christian enclave. Aoun became a genuinely popular figure, at least in some quarters. But his main external protector, the Iraqis, were in the Lebanese arena only as a way of weakening Syria, and once Iraq turned its attention to the main event, the invasion of Kuwait, Lebanon became a sideshow.

With Iraq clearly out of the Lebanese arena and with reasons to believe that neither the United States nor Israel would intervene on Aoun's behalf, the Hrawi government, strongly backed by Syria, moved against the general. Hundreds were killed in the final battles of late October, but the outcome was never in doubt. Aoun fled from his bunker in the presidential palace to seek refuge in the French embassy, leaving his supporters to make a final, futile stand against the advancing Syrian armor. By year's end the Hrawi government was asserting its authority in the Greater Beirut area; the militias were withdrawing from the city; and the American ambassador had returned, carrying with him offers of aid to the fledgling Lebanese army.

While no one could be very optimistic about the future of a country that had been nearly destroyed by civil war and external invasion over the past 15 years, for the moment the killing had stopped and Lebanese of various communities were engaged in efforts to make a reformed political system work. Against the otherwise grim news from the region in 1990, this was reason for at least a glimmer of hope.

Finally, one must look to events in Iran to complete an overview of developments in the region. Since the triumph of the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has undergone a genuine upheaval. Nothing like it has occurred elsewhere in the Middle East in modern times. But a decade of revolution and eight years of war had left Iran in a weak and exhausted position by 1990. The economy was weak, revolutionary fervor was on the wane, and a struggle for leadership was under way between those who adhered to the stark vision of the Ayatollah Khomeini and those who saw Iran's future as requiring a degree of accommodation with the outside world.

In the course of 1990 the more moderate tendency of President Hashemi Rafsanjani seemed to be winning over the revolutionists. Saddam Hussein's reckless invasion of Kuwait played into Rafsanjani's hands. Within weeks he was able to extract from a desperate Saddam Hussein concessions that had been unattainable since the ceasefire two years earlier. All Iranian territory was returned, as were prisoners of war, and Iran's claim to half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway was ostensibly recognized. Moreover, Iran paid no price at all for these concessions.

Some worried that Iran would help Iraq to break the economic embargo imposed by the United Nations, but that was a misreading of Iran's long-term interest in seeing Iraq weakened and Saddam Hussein removed from power. Like Syria, Iran was one of the potential winners of the gulf crisis. Before the year was over there were even signs that Iran was moving to rebuild its military power through purchases of advanced aircraft from the Soviet Union. As a sign of Rafsanjani's growing authority, his supporters swept the elections to the Assembly of Experts.


In the midst of the profound region-wide crisis sparked by Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of Kuwait, it is tempting to conclude that the Middle East will never be the same again. Such an ahistorical view is unwarranted. The crisis does, however, reveal with clarity some myths that have surrounded the discussion of the Middle East, and it has also put a sharp focus on a number of underlying trends in the region.

One of the myths that can now be safely put to rest is that of Arab unity as a practical proposition. For at least twenty years pan-Arabism has been on the wane as an ideological force. Egypt's separate peace with Israel was an explicit sign that state interests would prevail over sentiment. Palestinian nationalism ran counter to the belief that the liberation of Palestine was the duty of all Arabs. Finally, even during the Iran-Iraq War, not all Arab countries had sided with Iraq. Most noteworthy was that champion of pan-Arabism, Syria's President Assad, who solidly backed Iran against the only other Baathist regime in the world.

Just prior to Iraq's invasion, however, there seemed to be a semblance of cooperation among most Arab states. Egypt had returned to the Arab League and the Arab League had returned to Cairo. Even Mubarak and Assad seemed to be ready for reconciliation. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen were formally linked by a cooperation pact, as were the states of the Maghreb and those of the Arab side of the gulf.

In human terms, millions of Arabs were working outside their countries of origin in other parts of the Arab world. By doing so they were recycling petrodollars from the gulf to their families in Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza and Jordan. In brief, a kind of functional cooperation within the Arab world was occurring, but without the ideological pretense that integral Arab unity was on the horizon.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait shattered whatever remaining illusions there might have been about common Arab interests. Virtually all Arab regimes disapproved of Iraq's annexation of Kuwait, but only a slight majority of the Arab League was prepared to condemn the invasion outright and support the idea of sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia. Others were more concerned with the rapid American military buildup, claiming that the dispatch of foreign forces preempted the possibility of an Arab solution to the crisis. Soon the lines were clearly drawn. The Saudis and their gulf allies could count on strong support from only Egypt and Syria. Most other regimes in the Arab world straddled the fence or supported the Iraqi claim that the main danger for the Arab world was the intervention of foreign forces.

As the crisis deepened, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Egyptians commonly expressed a belief that Saddam Hussein had acted with the full support of Jordan, and perhaps the PLO and Yemen as well. In this conspiratorial interpretation, Saudi Arabia was to be carved up among its neighbors. Apparently believing this, Saudis took uncharacteristically harsh measures against Yemenis, Palestinians and Jordanians. The scars from this episode will be felt for a long time.7

Another myth already under question, but which the gulf crisis revealed to be essentially hollow, was that Israel could always count on American support because of its strategic value to the United States. Throughout the 1980s politicians in both Israel and the United States had routinely referred to Israel as a "strategic asset." And at the peak of the Cold War there were some aspects of military and intelligence cooperation that gave substance to the term. But with the end of the Cold War, what remained of Israel's strategic clout?

The gulf crisis provided an answer. For the Bush administration, Israel's primary role was to lie low while Washington forged its anti-Iraqi ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Syria. The president and his secretary of state, eager to deny Saddam Hussein's call for linking a solution to the gulf crisis to that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seemed intent on keeping Israel at an arm's length.

If anyone doubted the linkage between events in the gulf and in the Arab-Israeli arena, however, events in Jerusalem soon provided compelling evidence to the contrary. Palestinians in the occupied areas and in Jordan initially had become caught up in the enthusiasm for Saddam Hussein. Israelis were shocked and angry at the ease with which Palestinians appeared to condone the elimination of one Arab state by another. What did that say about Palestinian professions of accepting Israel's right to exist? The gulf crisis was inflaming the already tense atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians. Then, on October 8, Palestinians clashed with armed police on the Haram ash-Sharif, or Temple Mount. The police responded with live ammunition, and when the dust had settled at least 17 Palestinians were dead in the bloodiest single incident in Jerusalem since the 1967 War.

At the United Nations, where the United States was trying to shepherd through the Security Council a series of resolutions to enhance pressures on Iraq, demands were made that the world body address the killings in Jerusalem. Normally the United States is hesitant to go along with such calls, and in the past had even used its veto to prevent one-sided resolutions from being passed. This time, however, the United States helped to craft a resolution critical of Israel that passed unanimously, infuriating the Israeli government. U.S.-Israeli relations were at a low point. Few signs of "strategic cooperation" were in evidence. On the contrary, many Israelis were worried that the United States would court its new strategic allies, the Saudis and the Egyptians, at Israel's expense. That concern also seemed to be unwarranted, however, at least while Congress was able to protect the aid relationship. An early indication of continuing American support for Israel came in the form of an additional $700 million in military assistance in fiscal year 1991.

Some Israelis and their supporters feared that the gulf crisis would jeopardize Israel's interests. Iraq might well emerge from a political settlement with its strategic arsenal intact. Pressures could build on Israel to attend an international conference that would inevitably call for Israel to yield the occupied territories to its neighbors. And American aid would be unlikely to keep pace with Israel's growing needs.

While Israel's society and economy are indeed likely to experience severe strains in coming years, Israel's fundamental security position still seems quite strong. If, as seems probable, Iraq is kept on a very meager arms diet for the foreseeable future, no regional power will be able to threaten Israel. Iraq's nuclear potential poses a long-term threat, but for the moment Israel is the only nuclear power in the region. In addition American support for the Jewish state is unlikely to disappear.

Even so, Israel will no doubt be asked to confront the political, territorial and security issues that remain in dispute with its Arab neighbors, and some form of regional peace conference is a distinct possibility. This will force Likud to confront tough political choices, but Israel's security seems assured.

If Israel seemed likely to emerge from the gulf crisis in a relatively strong position, the same could not be said of Jordan. There the economic burden of the crisis was immediately felt, and King Hussein's political stance jeopardized future support from both the gulf states and the West. Nonetheless the king had probably never been more popular among Jordanians and Palestinians, giving the regime some solace as it confronted its most serious crisis in twenty years. Perhaps Jordan can weather the storm, but it might also be one of the war victims.


For the Middle East 1990 was a year filled with nostalgic messages from an earlier era. Saddam's rallying cry of Arab unity echoed the more compelling message of Nasser in the 1950s. On a smaller scale, Aoun's appeal to restore the fortunes of the Maronites in a Lebanon free of foreign domination was more a theme of the past than a realistic vision of the future. Ben Bella's return to Algeria bore faint resemblance to his triumphal entry into a newly independent Algeria in 1962.

Even King Hussein of Jordan contributed to this sense of regret for a bygone era by urging his countrymen to address him by the title of his great-grandfather, Sherif Hussein. (In so doing, he convinced many Saudis that Jordan was reviving a territorial claim to the Hijaz, the part of the Saudi kingdom where the Hashemites had held sway until the mid-1920s.) Throughout the region, Islamic movements were also looking backward to earlier models, and traditional religious symbolism was pervading political discourse.

Israel, in most ways the most modern of the states in the region, was hardly immune to these voices from the past. The religious parties, while attracting relatively few followers, held the balance of power between the two main blocs and played it for maximum advantage. Everyday life in west Jerusalem was definitely colored by the influence of the ultra-Orthodox community there.

The arrival in Israel of huge numbers of new immigrants reopened a whole series of suppressed debates. Who is a Jew? Could a Russian immigrant whose father was Jewish but whose mother was not come in under the Law of Return? Could Israel now pursue the Zionist ideal of Jewish labor, freeing itself from dependence on a large Palestinian work force? Was Greater Israel now a realistic vision, as Shamir implied? What then of the Arab inhabitants of the country and their rights? All of these issues had been debated at length by the early Zionists who came to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, and now the debate is being revived in dramatically new circumstances.

The politics of the past, of romantic visions, was one sign of how unsatisfactory the prevailing order was to many in the Middle East. If reliable public opinion polls existed, they would doubtless show high levels of dissatisfaction with most dimensions of political, economic and social life throughout the region. Not surprisingly, then, many looked to the past for inspiration and for a sense of continuity with history.

At the same time the Middle East is being bombarded with every aspect of the technological and information revolution. In foreign ministries and luxury hotels around the region, televisions broadcast Cable News Network programs 24 hours a day. Elites everywhere are in touch with this instantaneous source of information. The computer and the fax machine are now commonplace in the region. Millions of Middle Easterners have studied or worked in Western countries, speak English or French fluently, and plan to send their children abroad for education. This is the other side of the look backwards-an encounter with an omnipresent, increasingly compelling global culture.

If anyone doubts the appeal of modern technology in the Middle East today, they have only to look at the military establishments in countries as diverse as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Here the most sophisticated equipment is in operation, including surface-to-surface missiles, precision-guided weapons, advanced aircraft and so forth. Thousands of young recruits have trained on these weapons, mastering complex skills in the process. Whatever their ideologies, military officers are obliged to learn the ways of the West; the same is true of bankers, businessmen, agricultural engineers and factory managers.

Nowhere are these tensions between past and future more apparent than in North Africa; there serious debate is under way about how best to prepare for the coming unification of Europe in 1992, which has profound implications for each of the societies on the southern side of the Mediterranean. At the same time, in the same societies, arguments are taking place over the application of Islamic law in all sectors of life.

It is this tension among ossified political structures, the lure of the past, and the reality of societies in turmoil that is the subtheme of Middle East politics. Of course the dramatic events in the gulf, the Arab-Israeli confrontation and the long-standing troubled encounter between the Middle East and the West are capable of reshaping the political map of the region. But it is also these undercurrents of debate within each society, within each state, that will determine the contours of the Middle East for years to come.

For the moment the region seems caught up in the appeal of the past and the dangers of the present. But a few signs can also be found that the currents that are sweeping the rest of the globe-democratization, economic reform, and peaceful resolution of conflicts-can take root in the Middle East as well. But for this to happen, rulers like Saddam Hussein must be checked and the Arab-Israeli dispute must move toward resolution. Only then can the energies of the region be directed toward curbing the arms race, toward economic development and long-overdue reform, and restructuring along more democratic lines of decaying political systems.

1 For the text of Saddam Hussein's speech, see Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Feb. 27, 1990.

2 For a sobering portrait of Iraq under Saddam's rule, see Samir al-Khalil, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

3 Letter from Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Arab League Secretary General Chedli Klibi, July 15, 1990.

4 See the account by David Makovsky, The Jerusalem Post (International Edition), March 24, 1990, p. 2.

5 Policy Forum: Report on Trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel, by Martin Indyk et al., Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1990.

7 See, for example, the surprisingly harsh attack by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, on Jordan's King Hussein, in The Washington Post, Sept. 26, 1990.

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