What Would Defeating Saddam Trigger?

Is the Middle East today fundamentally different from the Middle East of 1991, when the United States fought a war to drive Iraq out of Kuwait?

In 1991, Israel's hard-line government had to contend with a Palestinian uprising. In 2002, Israel's hard-line government faces an even bloodier Palestinian uprising and a deeper disillusionment with the peace process.

There have been some positive changes in the region. Civil wars have ended in Lebanon and Yemen. In Syria and Jordan, ruling fathers have been succeeded by sons who pledge to be more accessible. In Saudi Arabia, power has passed from an ailing king to his half-brother, who promises to root out corruption. Moderates have gained some influence in Iran. Afghanistan is trying to overcome years of chaos and repression.

What does it all amount to? Not democracy, exactly, but steps toward greater openness.

The biggest difference between the Middle East now and 11 years ago is the vast expansion of U.S. influence. Victory in the Persian Gulf War gave the United States uncontested supremacy in the region, especially after the Soviet Union went out of business at the end of 1991.

While U.S. influence is unchallenged, U.S. policies have generated a lot of criticism. Some religious Muslims resent the presence of American forces on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War. (Osama bin Laden rabidly resents that presence.) The United States is seen as hypocritical because of its support of Israel. As one Muslim cleric put it, "The U.S. accuses the Arabs and Muslims of terrorism, classifying countries as 'evil,' and revealing its [own] injustice by backing the Zionist occupier and providing him with funds and weapons to carry out terror against the Palestinians."

The issue now, as before, is Israel. "In most of the Middle East, they see America as an imperialist power today, more than before," said University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami. "And they see America through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is still their top priority, the one they see on their television screens every day. As a consequence, they blame the U.S. for much of that bloodshed."

Another body of opinion holds that a U.S. victory over Saddam Hussein will revive hope for peace in the Middle East. In the view of professor Robert Lieber of Georgetown University, "The road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad, not vice versa. The ouster of Saddam will have very beneficial effects in fostering an Arab-Israeli peace process."

Lieber argues that removing Saddam would eliminate a key source of support for Palestinian terrorism and obstructionism. It would further enhance U.S. power and influence in the Middle East—an outcome that could make peace between Israel and the Arabs more likely. After all, the U.S. victory in 1991 led Israel and its adversaries to sit down and talk peace. "It was the Gulf War and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 1991 that made that possible," Lieber said.

Arabs fear that won't happen this time. In Telhami's view, "The grand fear in the region is that after war with Iraq, the U.S. will be preoccupied with the consequences, and Sharon's government will be able to do whatever it wants. There will be no incentive to bring about a successful peace process in that environment."

Almost every country in the region has expressed opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq. "All Arab countries—every single Arab country—is against these threats," King Abdullah of Jordan has warned. That's why it came as a surprise when Syria joined with the rest of the U.N. Security Council in voting to insist on new inspections of Iraq. The Syrians said they were acting to avert war, not to create a pretext for war.

Throughout the Middle East, anti-Americanism has grown along with U.S. influence. That sentiment threatens any leader who sides with the United States. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told his parliament after a recent trip to Washington: "I said to the U.S. administration, 'If you harm the Iraqi people while the Palestinians are still suffering, it would only fuel the anger of the Arabs.' No leader in the Arab world would be able to stop people expressing anger at such a move."

The question is whether the defeat of Saddam will have the same meaning that it did 11 years ago.

Maybe, says Lieber: "As the population of Afghanistan in the cities showed themselves rejoicing in their liberation, the demonstrations in the Arab world [against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan] declined and then fell to nothing. You might very well get that in the present situation if and when Saddam is ousted."

But Telhami says the image of Iraq has changed: "Today, no one I know in the Middle East takes Saddam Hussein seriously. No one believes that this man has an option. No one sees him but as a weak and mostly incapable leader when it comes to delivering for Arab causes. They see Iraq as a victim."

So what has really changed in the Middle East since 1991? The United States is in a stronger position strategically and a weaker position politically. The lesson: Great power breeds great resentment.