This past week confirmed that the American political establishment is
not united in support of the Bush Administration's policy of forcible
"regime change" in Iraq. Odd as it may seem, the strongest expression of
doubt came from a key member of the GOP's right wing, House majority
leader Dick Armey. Expressing concern that an unprovoked attack on Iraq
would violate international law, Armey was quoted as saying that such an
attack "would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or
what we should be as a nation." Meanwhile, Armey's colleague across the
aisle, Carl Levin, voiced the thinking of many of his fellow Democrats
when he argued that "containment of Saddam is so far working."
Armey and Levin are just two of a number of important political
actors--including several prominent senators, forces within the military
and worried figures on Wall Street--who have recently expressed qualms
about the proposed military invasion. These voices need to be amplified
and reinforced by others if the United States is to avoid a potentially
disastrous intervention in the Middle East.
Arguably the most important doubters, because only Congress is
empowered by the Constitution to declare war, are the members of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At their July 31-August 1 hearings on Iraq, chairman Joseph Biden Jr. and other committee
members--while taking pains to make clear that they, too, think Saddam
Hussein must go--emphasized that the aim of the hearings was not to
rally support for or against an invasion but rather to raise questions
and concerns. "Here we have a situation [about] which, clearly, we need
to know much more," Republican Senator Richard Lugar explained in his
opening remarks. Intense questioning of possible US moves is essential,
he added, because "the life of the country is at stake."
Another significant indication of elite concern was articles in the
New York Times and the Washington Post reporting serious
divisions within the US military and business class over the merits of
the proposed invasion. If these articles are accurate--and there is no
reason to assume otherwise--many senior military officers fear that US
intervention will produce chaos in the Middle East and lead to a costly,
dangerous and long-term American occupation of Iraq. Likewise, senior
corporate officials are said to fear a drop in consumer spending
resulting from rising oil prices, as well as a heightened risk of
None of these groups can be described as flat-out opponents of an
American invasion. Most would probably support the President--even cheer
him wildly--if US intervention was thought certain to result in a
speedy, casualty-free occupation of Baghdad and the replacement of
Saddam with a democratic, pro-Western, peace-seeking regime. The
problem, in their eyes, is that Bush can guarantee none of this. And
while readers of The Nation might wish to raise more fundamental
issues--such as whether the United States has a legal or moral right to
initiate a unilateral assault--the concerns among the country's elite
deserve widespread public attention. They can be compressed into nine
1. Why engage in a risky and potentially calamitous invasion of Iraq
when the existing strategy of "containment"--entailing no-fly zones,
sanctions, technology restraints and the deployment of US forces in
surrounding areas--not only has clearly succeeded in deterring Iraqi
adventurism for the past ten years but also in weakening Iraq's military
2. Why has the Administration found so little international support for
its proposed policy, even among our closest friends and allies (with the
possible exception of Britain's Tony Blair), and what would be the
consequences if Washington tried to act without their support and
without any international legal authority? Isn't it dangerous and unwise
for the United States to engage in an essentially unilateral attack on
3. Is the United States prepared to accept significant losses of
American lives--a strong possibility in the projected intense ground
fighting around Baghdad and other urban areas?
4. Is the United States prepared to inflict heavy losses on Iraq's
civilian population if, as expected, Saddam concentrates his military
assets in urban areas? Would this not make the United States a moral
pariah in the eyes of much of the world?
5. Wouldn't an invasion of Iraq aimed at the removal of Saddam Hussein
remove any inhibitions he might have regarding the use of chemical and
biological (and possibly nuclear) weapons, making their use more rather
than less likely?
6. Are we prepared to cope with the outbreaks of anti-American protest
and violence that, in the event of a US attack on Iraq, are sure to
erupt throughout the Muslim world, jeopardizing the survival of pro-US
governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and further inflaming the
7. Can the fragile American economy withstand a sharp rise in oil
prices, another decline in air travel, a bulging federal deficit, a drop
in consumer confidence and other negative economic effects that can be
expected from a major war in the Middle East? And what would an invasion
mean for an even more fragile world economy and for those emerging
markets that depend on selling their exports to the United States and
that are vulnerable to rising oil prices?
8. Even if we are successful in toppling Saddam, who will govern Iraq
afterward? Will we leave the country in chaos (as we have done in
Afghanistan)? Or will we try to impose a government in the face of the
inevitable Iraqi hostility if US forces destroy what remains of Iraq's
infrastructure and kill many of its civilians?
9. Are we willing to deploy 100,000 or more American soldiers in Iraq
for ten or twenty years (at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a
year) to defend a US-imposed government and prevent the breakup of the
country into unstable Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite mini-states?
So far, the Bush Administration has not provided honest or convincing
answers to any of these questions. It is essential, then, that
concerned Americans ask their Congressional representatives to demand
answers to these (and related) questions from the White House and hold
further hearings to weigh the credibility of the Administration's
answers. It is vital that our representatives play their rightful
constitutional role in this fateful decision. The American public
clearly would welcome such moves: A recent Washington Post-ABC
News poll found that while a majority support the President at this
point, they want him to seek authorization from Congress and approval of
America's allies before going ahead. And when asked whether they would
favor a ground war if it were to produce "significant" US casualties,
support plummeted to 40 percent and opposition rose to 51 percent. If
you worry about the future of America, clip or copy these nine questions
and include them in letters to your senators and representative. In
addition, get involved locally: Help organize a teach-in, write a letter
to your newspaper, raise the subject at civic meetings.
The American Constitution at the very beginning of the Republic sought
above all to guard the country against reckless, ill-considered recourse
to war. It required a declaration of war by the legislative branch, and
gave Congress the power over appropriations even during wartime. Such
caution existed before the great effort of the twentieth century to
erect stronger barriers to war by way of international law and public
morality, and to make this resistance to war the central feature of the
United Nations charter. Consistent with this undertaking, German and
Japanese leaders who engaged in aggressive war were punished after World
War II as war criminals. The most prominent Americans at the time
declared their support for such a framework of restraint as applicable
in the future to all states, not just to the losers in a war. We all
realize that the effort to avoid war has been far from successful, but
it remains a goal widely shared by the peoples of the world and still
endorsed by every government on the planet.
And yet, here we are, poised on the slippery precipice of a pre-emptive
war, without even the benefit of meaningful public debate. The
constitutional crisis is so deep that it is not even noticed. The
unilateralism of the Bush White House is an affront to the rest of the
world, which is unanimously opposed to such an action. The Democratic
Party, even in its role as loyal opposition, should be doing its utmost
to raise the difficult questions. Instead, the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, under the chairmanship of Democratic Senator Biden, organized
two days of hearings, notable for the absence of critical voices. Such
hearings are worse than nothing, creating a forum for advocates of war,
fostering the illusion that no sensible dissent exists and thus serving
mainly to raise the war fever a degree or two. How different might the
impact of such hearings be if respected and informed critics of a
pre-emptive war, such as Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, both
former UN coordinators of humanitarian assistance to Iraq who resigned
in protest a few years back, were given the opportunity to appear before
the senators. The media, too, have failed miserably in presenting to the
American people the downside of war with Iraq. And the citizenry has
been content to follow the White House on the warpath without demanding
to know why the lives of young Americans should be put at risk, much
less why the United States should go to war against a distant foreign
country that has never attacked us and whose people have endured the
most punishing sanctions in all of history for more than a decade.
This is not just a procedural demand that we respect the Constitution as
we decide upon recourse to war--the most serious decision any society
can make, not only for itself but for its adversary. It is also, in this
instance, a substantive matter of the greatest weight. The United States
is without doubt the world leader at this point, and its behavior with
respect to war and law is likely to cast a long shadow across the
future. To go legitimately to war in the world that currently exists can
be based on three types of considerations: international law
(self-defense as set forth in Article 51 backed by a UN mandate, as in
the Gulf War), international morality (humanitarian intervention to
prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing) and necessity (the survival and
fundamental interests of a state are genuinely threatened and not really
covered by international law, as arguably was the case in the war in
With respect to Iraq, there is no pretense that international law
supports such a war and little claim that the brutality of the Iraqi
regime creates a foundation for humanitarian intervention. The
Administration's argument for war rests on the necessity argument, the
alleged risk posed by Iraqi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction,
and the prospect that such weapons would be made available to Al Qaeda
for future use against the United States. Such a risk, to the scant
extent that it exists, can be addressed much more successfully by
relying on deterrence and containment (which worked against the far more
menacing Soviet Union for decades) than by aggressive warmaking. All the
evidence going back to the Iran/Iraq War and the Gulf War shows that
Saddam Hussein responds to pressure and threat and is not inclined to
risk self-destruction. Indeed, if America attacks and if Iraq truly
possesses weapons of mass destruction, the feared risks are likely to
materialize as Iraq and Saddam confront defeat and humiliation, and have
little left to lose.
A real public debate is needed not only to revitalize representative
democracy but to head off an unnecessary war likely to bring widespread
death and destruction as well as heighten regional dangers of economic
and political instability, encourage future anti-American terrorism and
give rise to a US isolationism that this time is not of its own
We must ask why the open American system is so closed in this instance.
How can we explain this unsavory rush to judgment, when so many lives
are at stake? What is now wrong with our system, with the vigilance of
our citizenry, that such a course of action can be embarked upon without
even evoking criticism in high places, much less mass opposition in the
With the drumbeat for war on Iraq growing louder in Washington by the
day, the latest United States-backed Iraqi opposition group--the Iraqi
Military Alliance--was established with great fanfare in London in
mid-July by some eighty former Iraqi officers. If this was an attempt at
priming the Iraqi opposition pump as a prelude to overthrowing the
regime of Saddam Hussein, holding a much-hyped press conference seemed
an odd way to proceed.
An incisive comment came from an independent-minded Iraqi lawyer. "The
American policy-makers believe that if you scare Saddam and threaten
him, he will yield," he said. "They think this high profile meeting in
London will ruffle his feathers. Also, it gives a military dimension to
the predominantly civilian Iraqi National Congress." But Saddam does not
scare so easily. In his televised address to the nation on July 17, he
asserted that "evil tyrants and oppressors" would not be able to
overthrow him and his regime. "You will never defeat me this time," he
Behind this bravado lies Iraq's well-tailored policy of reconciliation
with its neighbors, which its foreign minister, Naji Sabri, has been
following doggedly for the past several months. A Christian and former
professor of English literature at Baghdad University, the smooth and
sophisticated Sabri started the year with a groundbreaking trip to
Teheran to resolve the prisoners-of-war exchange issue with Iran. The
following month he flew to Ankara, where he expressed flexibility on
renewed UN inspections. At the Arab summit in Beirut in March, Iraq
recognized Kuwait's border and promised to discuss the issue of Kuwaiti
POWs. "We have instructed our media to avoid any references which may
annoy the State of Kuwait," said Sabri after the summit. Since then he
has sought the assistance of his Qatari and Omani counterparts to
improve Baghdad's relations with Kuwait.
The strategy seems to be paying off. Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, the
Kuwaiti defense minister, said in late July that his country would
approve a US attack on Iraq only if it is done under the auspices of the
United Nations. "Kuwait does not support threats to strike or launch an
attack against Iraq." Baghdad's relations with Saudi Arabia have
improved, too. Riyadh has reopened its border with Iraq at Arar, and
Saudi companies are doing business in Iraq within the framework of the
UN oil-for-food scheme. The desert kingdom has refused to allow the
Pentagon use of the Prince Sultan air base at Al Kharj in case of war
Hence the US pressure on Jordan to allow its air bases to be used
instead--a prospect that sent a tearful King Abdullah rushing to a
European leader to complain about the US plan to attack Iraq from his
kingdom at a time when Arab frustration with the stalemate on the
Israeli-Palestinian front is rising by the day. (That was before
Israel's widely condemned dropping of a one-ton bomb in Gaza, killing
fifteen and injuring 160.)
King Abdullah's European interlocutor was certainly sympathetic to the
monarch's plight. All the European countries except Britain are urging
Washington to construct a coalition for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking,
not for warmaking in Iraq. In this effort they have the backing of
Turkey, a neighbor of Iraq and a NATO member that allows the use of its
Incirlik air base by US and British warplanes monitoring the northern
Iraqi no-fly zone.
In his July 21 interview on state television, Turkish Prime Minister
Bulent Ecevit said the United States should consider alternatives to
military action against Baghdad. "There are other measures to deter the
Iraqi regime from being a threat to the region," he said. "Iraq is...so
developed technologically and economically despite the embargo that it
cannot be compared to Afghanistan or Vietnam." What is more, Ecevit
warned that it would not be possible for America to "get out easily"
from Iraq. Such a prospect was outlined by Sir Peter de la Billiere, who
commanded the British troops in the 1991 Gulf War. Discussing the
prospect of US, British and French troops capturing Baghdad, he wrote in
his Storm Command: A Personal Account of the Gulf War, "Saddam
Hussein...would have slipped away into the desert and organized a
guerrilla movement.... We would then have found ourselves with the task
of trying to run a country shattered by war, which at the best of times
is deeply split into factions.... Either we would have to set up a
puppet government or withdraw ignominiously without a proper regime in
Little wonder that among the questions European and Turkish leaders are
asking the Bush Administration now is: Is America willing to stay in
Iraq for ten years to safeguard the post-Saddam regime from
subversion--and possibly an attack--by an alliance of Iran and Syria,
which have been strategic allies since 1980?
On July 23 Iran's President, Muhammad Khatami, declared that Washington
did not have the right to choose the leadership for the Iraqi people.
Noting that war against Iraq was being promoted in Washington on an
unprecedented scale, he warned that military action against Iraq by the
Pentagon could seriously threaten regional stability. Iranian leaders
reckon that once the Bush Administration has overthrown Saddam, it will
target Iran for regime change--fears fueled by its late-July
announcement that it is officially ending its policy of "playing
factions" in Iran in favor of direct appeals to the Iranian people.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress called for a
resolution in favor of regime change in Iran. Mainstream Iranian
politicians would rather forge an alliance with Baghdad now than wait
for the ax to fall on them in the post-Saddam period.
US war plans clearly pose numerous dangers to the region. But whether
that will deter the hawks in Washington from pressing home their
strategy of ousting Saddam by force remains to be seen.
Concerning the impending or perhaps imminent intervention in Iraq, we now inhabit a peculiar limbo, where the military options are known while the political and moral options are not.
Counterinsurgency aid will be a big boost to Occidental Petroleum.
If the Bush Administration has its way, Iraq will be the first test of its new doctrine of pre-emption. To adopt such a destabilizing strategy is profoundly contrary to our interests and endangers our security.
In this issue, on the twentieth anniversary of the June 12, 1982, march
of a million people in Manhattan's Central Park protesting nuclear arms,
we publish an appeal calling on the public to demand that the United
States commit itself, together with the other nuclear powers, to the
abolition of nuclear weapons--and to take prompt, concrete steps toward
that goal. The appeal will be introduced in Congress by Representative
Ed Markey as a resolution on June 11.
As it happens, the cloud of nuclear danger is blacker at this moment
than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear danger has
spread, as it was destined to as long as the United States and the other
cold-war-era nuclear powers insisted on holding on to their arsenals.
Now the grim drama is being played out in a new locality, South Asia.
The hatred is not ideological but religious and ethnic. The millions of
potential victims are not the rich and powerful but the poorest of the
poor. The antagonists, partitioned in 1947, are twins from a single
zygote. Nuclear suicide would also be fratricide.
The United States, which actually did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki what the
South Asians so far only threaten to do to each other, and which for
more than a half-century has been the trailblazer in the development and
rationalization of nuclear weapons, cannot condescend to the newcomers
to the game. At the end of May the United States announced that it will
be building a plant for the construction of brand-new nuclear weapons,
to be ready for use in 2020. And George W. Bush has announced that
deterrence no longer works--"pre-emptive" attacks will be the order of
the day for our military. Such are the actions of the US officials now
on their way to South Asia bearing scenarios showing the awfulness of
nuclear war and counsels of "restraint."
But all that doesn't prevent us from noticing that India and Pakistan
are writing new chapters in the book of nuclear folly. When India tested
five nuclear weapons in 1998 and declared itself a full-fledged nuclear
power, it proved, in the words of its Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh,
that there was to be no "nuclear apartheid" in the world. Now it seems
bent on proving that there is no apartheid for nuclear madness either.
One of South Asia's distinctive contributions to the field is a
flippancy in discussing nuclear danger, adding a new dimension to Hannah
Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil." Early in the crisis, General
Padmanabhan, India's army chief, commented, "If we have to go to war,
jolly good! If we don't, we will still manage." Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg,
retired chief of Pakistan's armed forces, commented, "I don't know what
you're worried about. You can die crossing the street, hit by a car, or
you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday, anyway." Die,
yes, but must we all be killed?
Around the same time, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said that
Pakistan's President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, should not use nuclear
weapons because "I'm sure he doesn't want to kill all the Pakistanis."
Of course, it would not be Musharraf but Indian Prime Minister Atal
Behari Vajpayee and Defense Minister Fernandes who would kill all the
Pakistanis, in retaliation. Have they reflected that a threat to kill
all Pakistanis is a threat of genocide, the gravest of all crimes
against humanity? There was no sign that they had. The world should tell
Meanwhile, the human imagination, brought once more to the brink,
fitfully tries--and mostly fails--to take in the news that 12 million
people (according to a Pentagon estimate) might die immediately in a
nuclear war in South Asia. Millions more would die slowly. (One
television station labeled the story with the logo "Nuclear
Distraction." Presumably, the danger of nuclear war was breaking its
concentration on the squabbles between the FBI and the CIA over
September 11 warnings.)
Yet from South Asia there also came at least one voice that offered the
imagination something to hold on to, a way to begin to grasp the awful
prospect--the voice of novelist Arundhati Roy. Her foreign friends asked
why she doesn't leave New Delhi. Doesn't she think the threat of nuclear
war is real? "It is," she answered, "but where shall we go? If I go away
and everything and every one--every friend, every tree, every home,
every dog, squirrel and bird that I have known and loved--is
incinerated, how shall I live on? Who shall I love? And who will love me
And so she and friends have decided to stay. "We huddle together. We
realize how much we love each other. And we think what a shame it would
be to die now. Life's normal only because the macabre has become normal.
While we wait for rain, for football, for justice, the old generals and
the eager boy-anchors on TV talk of first-strike and second-strike
capabilities as though they're discussing a family board game. My
friends and I discuss Prophecy, the documentary about the bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.... The dead bodies choking the river. The
living stripped of skin and hair.... We remember especially the man who
just melted into the steps of a building. We imagine ourselves like
that. As stains on staircases.... The last question every visiting
journalist always asks me: Are you writing another book?
"That question mocks me. Another book? Right now? When it looks as
though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature--the
whole of human civilization--means nothing to the fiends who run the
world? What kind of book should I write?
"It's not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on
hairtrigger alert. It's all of us. That's what nuclear bombs do. Whether
they're used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter
the meaning of life itself."
If the world can attune itself to this voice, it will abolish nuclear
weapons, and there will be no nuclear war.
One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command
was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska
Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the
keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The
conference--"International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the
U.S. Record"--took place at New School University, where Kerrey is
president, and grew out of Kerrey's own suggestion that his experience
in Vietnam be turned into an "educational moment." On hand were an array
of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh
Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials
(former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone,
former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the
former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important
subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey
was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience
might shed light on America's culpability for human rights violations in
Vietnam. "When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an
educational moment," he announced, "I did not intend to meekly submit to
cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign
policy during the war in Vietnam."
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since
Gregory Vistica's excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey's
Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica
presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question.
According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of
Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of
fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching
for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the
more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however--a
version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors--roughly a dozen
women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night.
Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had
reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough
that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for
an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" of the case. "For the US
to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as
have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the
world to enforce these essential standards," the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has
evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New
School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found
itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey
never told school officials about the operation until the story made
international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for
him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the
faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey's public acknowledgment
should serve as an occasion for the United States "to consider its own
record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere."
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the
controversy about Kerrey's past has been compounded by growing rancor
over his vision of the New School's future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt,
the popular dean of the school's vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political
and Social Science, resigned after concluding that "the emphasis was on
revenue flows rather than building academic excellence." At a public
forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested
awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of
tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was
his own "bad idea." Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been
straightforward about the future of the university's core division, the
Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its
budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral
programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When
Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course,
indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner
two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was
reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey's handling of the
Vietnam story. When Klann's account first appeared, after all, Kerrey
did not flat-out deny it ("I'm not going to make this worse by
questioning somebody else's memory"), but he accused the media of
"collaborating" with those who want to believe the worst about America.
He expressed anguish and regret ("If I'd have lost both arms and both
legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn't have been as much as I
lost that night"). But he hired public relations adviser John
Scanlon--who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry
whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)--to spin the story.
In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US
troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp
on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose
reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the
New School. "I really question the wisdom of the university leaders
here," said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and
heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. "If he had come out
openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I
would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty
should demand his resignation until there is an independent
investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role."
International law offers too little protection for prisoners of the new war.
It is now widely acknowledged that what sparked the most devastating attack on the American mainland in history was the continued presence of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil after the Gulf War--which, in 1991, prompted the disaffection of Osama bin Laden, until then part of the Saudi political/business establishment. With US troops, warplanes and other military hardware stationed in all the gulf Arab monarchies, and the Pentagon's Fifth Fleet headquartered in the island state of Bahrain, why does the United States need to maintain a military presence on Saudi soil?
It would be naïve to expect a straight answer from US authorities, so one has to make do with the explanations offered recently by unnamed Pentagon officials, especially the one "who has worked intimately with Saudi Arabia" and who told the Washington Post in mid-January that the United States promised to withdraw its contingent from the Saudi kingdom "when the job is done." As the Post reported, "Saudis interpreted that to mean the job of expelling Iraq from Kuwait [in 1990-91], but many US officials think the job remains undone as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad."
The official was referring to the written promise from President Bush Senior, secured by King Fahd before he invited US troops to his country, in August 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. So, out goes the explanation dished up routinely by the State Department and the Pentagon for many years--that the troops and warplanes are based inside Saudi Arabia to monitor the US/UK-imposed no-fly zone in southern Iraq, implying that the discontinuation of this zone would end the Pentagon's presence in the desert kingdom. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the logic even more explicit in a January 20 Fox-TV interview quoted in the International Herald Tribune: The US military presence in Saudi Arabia, he said, "might end only when the world turned into 'the kind of place we dreamed of. They [US forces] serve a useful purpose there as a deterrent to Saddam Hussein, but beyond that as a symbol.'"
Fahd extracted Bush Senior's promise in 1990 in order to overcome stiff opposition from ranking clerics, who provide legitimacy to the rule of the House of Saud. The presence of US troops under their own flag in Saudi Arabia violates a cardinal Islamic principle that the kingdom has enforced since its inception in 1932, treating all Saudi territory as a mosque, based on Mohammed's deathbed injunction: "Let there be no two religions in Arabia." Clearly King Fahd was apprehensive about US troops in his kingdom acting as an independent force to achieve their anti-Iraq objective without regard for its impact on Saudi interests or sovereignty. Twelve years on, he and Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, find Washington trying to impose its interpretation of what "the job" entails and when it is "done."
America's insistence on imposing its will on Riyadh is fueling the anger many Saudis feel toward Washington, especially regarding its unquestioned support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which generates sympathy for Osama bin Laden. A secret survey in mid-October by the kingdom's intelligence agency, Istikhabart, showed that 95 percent of educated Saudis in the 25-to-41 age group supported "bin Laden's cause." Given this sociopolitical fact, it seems unlikely that the regime in Riyadh can continue its tight military links with Washington. The writing is on the wall. "Since September 11 America has lost the Saudi people," said Dr. Abdulrahman al-Zamil, chairman of the al-Zamil business group. "America tried to convince people that they are here to protect the [Saudi] regime, and that is total garbage. Their presence is a liability to the Saudi government." The airing of such a view by an affluent businessman, who is also a member of the consultative council appointed by the monarch, could have happened only with the connivance of the royal family.
Perceiving widespread opposition to the presence of US troops in the kingdom, the top decision-makers in Riyadh may have decided to raise the previously taboo issue in public, if only to signal to their subjects that their views are being taken into account. However, along with their American counterparts, they face a dilemma: How can US military presence in the kingdom be curtailed or ended without appearing to reward bin Laden? There is no easy way out.