The decisions of the Cairo Arab summit undoubtedly pleased the Bush Administration by providing an Arab cover for its efforts to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Yet their decisions represent a total failure of the Arab state system. The Kuwait crisis simply accelerated trends that have been under way for some time.
The Arab heads of state were unable to agree upon an Arab solution that would obviate the need for American and Western intervention. They opted, instead, for measures designed to save their governments, at the risk of further alienating their own people.
For decades, conservative and radical Arab governments have relied on outside support while on the inside, they maintained horribly oppressive regimes. Soviet support, grafted onto corrupt and bureaucratic systems, was useless in helping Arab governments mount an effective challenge to Israel's hegemony in the Middle East. American support of its own client states was even more problematic. Unconditional U.S. assistance to Israel and reluctance to pressure it into adopting some compromises for peace have led erosion of popular support for moderate Arab governments. On the eve of the present crisis, with the collapse of American efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-American sentiment in the Arab world reached its highest level in decades.
The end of the Cold War and the decline of ideology have left the Middle East riddled with political, social and economic problems complicated by history and misguided policies. The Arab state system, a relic of colonialism, was able to survive in an era of ideological confrontation and superpower rivalry. It is uncertain whether this system will survive the stresses of economic scarcity, the ramifications of the present crisis, and the continued failure to resolve the Palestinian problem.
As the rest of the world moves toward democracy, feeble attempts by various Arab governments (among them Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia) to adopt a multiparty system do not alter their essentially authoritarian structures. The average person has seen a significant loss of civil liberties in addition to a sharp decline in economic welfare.
The failure to democratize is only one of many grievances against the Arab governments. The list includes, among other things, the failure to respond with dignity to insulting U.S. policies that fuel Israel's oppression in the occupied territories, and the failure to put investment in human resources ahead of conspicuous consumption and expensive though useless weapons systems.
What makes Saddam Hussein a hero in the eyes of many people is that he has challenged the West, especially the United States, and dealt a severe blow to corrupt wealth and privilege in the Gulf. Very few Arabs admire his record on human rights, and even fewer forgive him for squandering valuable human and economic resources in his protracted war with Iran. However, in an atmosphere of total frustration, a leader who stands up in defiance will be respected.
After 2 1/2 years of a costly and difficult uprising, the Palestinians, for example, are bitter about the failure of the United States to get Israel to the negotiating table. They are therefore groping for an alternative that will guarantee them some relief from Israel's occupation. A regional strongman who is perceived as a counter to Israel's intransigence may look very appealing. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein is a politician who has little to offer these masses in terms of effective solutions to their endemic problems.
The real danger lies in the fact that the Iraqi president may unfortunately represent the last chance for secular nationalism in the Arab World. His defeat at the hands of the United States might restore the status quo in Kuwait and in the region. But it will surely alter the entire geopolitical landscape for years to come.
What will replace the dying Arab state system? No one can predict the shape of things to come. One element, however, is beyond dispute. The only forces capable of articulating the severe alienation in the region are the Muslim fundamentalist groups whose power is already visible in several Arab countries. In a few years, the United States may be fighting even more Khomeinis in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The presence of American troops on Arab soil and the potential level of aggression to reverse Saddam Hussein's moves are likely to determine the depth and speed of this fundamentalist reaction.