The Lesson of Iraq

"Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs"

Hussein has shown his awareness of this fact by his concentration on repression and his preoccupation with security. Allegedly, he keeps a helicopter ready for a quick getaway, and even his bullet-proof Cadillac is driven not by a Jordanian but by an English driver. As Benjamin Wells reported in the New York Times:

The King, tough old Premier Samir el-Rafai and his closest Bedouin aides have stationed 20,000 troops in Amman itself. They are purging the army units and civilian population ' with increasing severity. The prisons are bulging and normal administration of the country has virtually halted.

This reliance upon force can only intensify and aggravate the underlying causes of the present situation. This is of course a Jordanian problem, but our close alliance with Hussein, which probably will not save him for long, will necessarily involve us in his fall. Our lavish expenditures of money or even, in yet another crash program, our use of force can have no future. Our policy has been reduced to a mere holding action.

There are those who agree with this analysis but who also say, "True, we are in a mess, but how do we get out without a terrible loss of face? If we simply ditch Hussein, our friends will never again rely upon us." It is gratuitous to point out that this might have been considered some time ago. To start from this moment, one must draw the sort of distinction made in the Observer in an editorial on July 27. "We [the British] now have a moral obligation to ensure the personal safety of King Hussein and those of his supporters whose lives might be endangered, but it does not extend to maintaining him on the throne indefinitely against the wishes of his people." Surely no democracy can accept such an obligation.

If this is an immediate and expensive problem in Jordan, it is likely to be a coming, even more expensive problem in the Arabian peninsula. To Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia now are spreading currents of thought, emotions, and new desires similar to those which have so agitated the rest of the Middle East in recent years. Arabism or Arab nationalism has already shown itself to be sufficiently strong in Saudi Arabia to force the virtual abdication of King Saud following the abortive attempt by the latter to have President Nasser assassinated. But it should be realized that at least as revolutionary a force in these lands as Nasser's Voice of the Arabs is the image of America presented in our own propaganda, in our movies, and at the installations of our oil companies. And, as in Iraq, a new middle class of merchants, technicians, and professional men is growing. The better the governments, the faster such groups will grow.

If these governments do not evolve politically, if they continue to want to ride the airplane of Western-style progress and yet retain paternalism, they cannot avoid losing the loyalty of their subjects. It is, of course, with the recognized governments that we must deal; we cannot and should not foster revolutionary movements even if they are movements toward our style of government. However, we need not go to the sort of extreme we have seen in Jordan, where our identification with the old regime is complete. If we are again caught relying, as we did in Iraq, on the inertia of the status quo, we will again be caught in the hatred of the people.

The problem of Arab-Israeli relations has been purposely avoided here. It seems to me that significant progress can be made by direct means, but that a lessening of hostility may come as a by-product of a more healthy domestic situation in the several states. Complex enough in itself, the issue of Arab-Israeli relations is rendered impossible of negotiation by the emotional context in which it is viewed. On the Arab side, this is mainly due to the fact that the Arabs regard Israel as the symbol of their inferiority and lack of standing in our eyes. No peace made by a Hussein would be lasting. Where governments gain self-respect and make significant attempts to deal with the pressing domestic problems, a far greater possibility of peace exists.

As we look ahead to what may be a succession of "scissor," revolts in the future, we must also ask ourselves what it is that we have really lost in Iraq. This question does not admit of easy answers, partly because we never decided what was our essential aim there and partly because the situation is still fluid and we may yet influence the course of events to our advantage or disadvantage.

Presented by

The author of What the Arabs Think and co-author of Backdrop to Tragedy, William R. Polk is a member of the center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. As a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation he lived for several years in the Middle East, and this article was written in an American interval before he returned to the area under discussion. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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