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What Do Arabs Want? : Appeasement: Militants kindle the pan-Arab dream, but their aggressive fascism poses : a permanent regional threat.

<i> Walter Laqueur is chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington. </i>

Saddam Hussein, in contrast to most other leaders in the contemporary world, has a grand design, and he has not made a secret of it: He wants to unite the Arab countries under his leadership and to replace the Soviet Union as the second superpower. He stated his aim in a number of speeches before the invasion of Kuwait, at a time when few people outside Iraq paid much attention. The next five years will be difficult, he said, but given the decline of the Soviet Union and America’s inability to act decisively, the old pan-Arab target might at long last be achieved.

Hussein’s second article of faith is equally simple: Given the essential weakness of the Arab world, except for its oil weapon, the aim can be reached only through unorthodox means--that is, unconventional weapons. Iraq’s GNP would grow sixfold or more if the oil fields within 50 miles of its borders were incorporated.

Attempts to unite the Arab-speaking world under one leader are not new. This has been the basic tenet of the Baath Party, founded more than 50 years ago by Hussein’s mentors. It was the main article of faith of Gamal Abdul Nasser, who had far more charisma and popular support than the Iraqi leader.

If the majority of Arabs want to join forces and establish a single state, opposition on the part of outsiders would be unjustified. Nor do Washington and Moscow have a permanent monopoly as far as superpower status is concerned. The history of mankind is a sequence of the rise and decline of great powers.

But what do the Arabs want? We do not know, for the winds of democratic change have bypassed the Arab East. There is not one Arab government--with the partial exception of Egypt--that has been popularly elected. The most militant pan-Arabists also happen to be closest to a modern version of aggressive fascism, oppressing their own peoples and permanently threatening their neighbors, Arabs and non-Arabs.

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This may change. For now, aggressive dictatorship is the basic fact of political life in the Middle East. So is the possession of the means of mass destruction. The combination can be deadly.

It could have been foreseen that the proliferation of nuclear and other unconventional weapons would sooner or later lead to a situation such as that now unfolding in the Persian Gulf. The world was a safer place when nuclear arms were the preserve of a few great powers. Even now it is unthinkable that a country like Brazil (or India or Israel) would use nuclear devices as an instrument of war or political pressure--except when attacked and if national existence were at stake. Saddam Hussein has made it known that his approach is different. There is no reason to dismiss it as mere “Arab rhetoric,” as some have done.

But why should the United States take the lead facing this danger? After all, Iraq will not attack America (or Russia). In principle, the problem should be dealt with by the Arab world and the United Nations. Unfortunately, the Arab world is hopelessly divided, incapable of dealing with any problem. As for the United Nations, it simply does not have the authority and power to deal with a problem of this kind. It might acquire such power after the first nuclear war, but hardly before. Could it be that those recommending an Arab or U.N. solution are voting--by default--for nuclear war in the Middle East?

The United States has taken upon itself the ungrateful task of confronting Hussein because it is the only major power that has the military might and possibly the political will to do so. Others, if not preoccupied with their own affairs, have become accustomed to the idea that it is prudent to let America deal, single-handedly if necessary, with critical situations. But this era is nearing its end; American power is insufficient to deal with the threats of the new age of proliferation. Today the problem is Saddam Hussein; tomorrow it might be an aggressor in another part of the globe.

It is not at all certain whether American resolve is sufficient to deal with Iraq. The natural inclination of every democracy is toward peace, not war, except in the case of a clear, present and immediate danger. A land war with the sole aim of liberating Kuwait makes no military sense. Why sacrifice the life of a single American for a faraway country about which so little is known and in which vital American interests are only marginally involved? Why take the lead if the rest of the world is showing little enthusiasm for any action that would remove the threat and the means of aggression? There is a high probability that in the next war the Middle East will go up in flames--and not just figuratively. But there is no certainty. Perhaps something totally unexpected will happen. Perhaps Hussein will be sufficiently frightened not to engage in further aggression.

Common sense rebels against violent action. The voice of common sense was Neville Chamberlain who, like all educated Englishmen of his time, knew his Shakespeare. When he returned from Munich in 1938, he quoted Henry IV: “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” The quotation was right, but he was mistaken about the flower. Perhaps we shall be luckier, but we should not count on it.


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