By launching an all-out war against Iraq, George Bush put the power and prestige of the United States on the line in a region whose treacherous politics can make losers out of even the most powerful outsiders.
Bush contends that the war is purely about righting the Iraqi wrong of invading Kuwait. Saddam Hussein wants it to be about other things: the Israeli occupation of Arab territory, the encroachment of Western civilization on the Islamic world, the huge gap between Arab rich and poor.
Making informed judgments about who will prevail is hard for most Americans, especially because their understanding of Middle Eastern history and political systems is sketchy. Watching televised gleanings from briefing rooms and air bases can't fill that gap. But the books described here will acquaint you with the region's key nations and the Arab political mentality.
You might start with The House of Saud (1981, out of print) by David Holden and Richard Johns. It's the best book around on Saudi Arabia, with whom the U. S. has a decades-long relationship so close that it rivals our link with Israel. Robert Lacey's The Kingdom (1981) is also solid. Both tell the marvelous tale of the al-Saud family and the rapid transformation of its domain from desert wasteland to modern industrial state.
America's ties with Saudi Arabia are continually questioned in Washington, perhaps because family-ruled nations seem anachronistic. One comes away from these books convinced that the al-Saud have provided a more stable government than many believe, yet wondering how long they can hold power. These books abound with tales of corruption, and they reveal a streak of religious conservatism that may be unleashed by the presence of so many infidel soldiers so near the shrines of Mecca and Medina. The royal families of Saudi Arabia, as well as Kuwait and the other gulf sheikdoms, could also be in for increasing sniping from within and without if their countries emerge from the war as virtual U. S. protectorates.
To the Iraqis in the north, the oil kingdoms have long seemed illegitimate and backward. The Iraqis contend that the monarchies' riches should belong to all Arabs. How they came to such views, which encouraged Saddam Hussein's Aug. 2 move into Kuwait, is vividly set forth in Republic of Fear (1989), a chilling study of life under the Baghdad regime by a pseudonymous Iraqi exile, Samir al-Khalil. Through the prism of its Baathist ideology, the Baghdad regime sees itself as the area's most progressive society. Before the war, Saddam did make major economic gains. But he went much further in perfecting the art of repression. Saddam has spies everywhere, Khalil writes, and uses terror to keep his vast army in line. Saddam's control-through-fear will make it hard to get rid of him even if he badly loses the war.
Although Saddam's bloodthirstiness is well-known in the Arab world, he enjoys considerable support. His horrendous record of repression doesn't count that much against him; he's only the worst of a bad lot of leaders. What he stands for is more important. In Jordan, the West Bank, and Algiers, he provides an outlet for frustration with Israel and the West.
In The Arab Predicament (1981), Lebanese-born scholar Fouad Ajami describes the growing alarm with which modern Arabs have watched Western civilization outclass their own. The most visible symbol of this gap has been Israel, which, though tiny, has parlayed Western technology and organizational skills into regional military dominance. The Arab obsession with Israel is only symptomatic of larger failures. As Ajami points out, the Arabs have been unable to create healthy political systems that would exploit their considerable talents and their vast stores of oil.
Instead, continued confrontation with Israel is an excuse for the creation of powerful police states and enormous defense expenditures. A prime example is Syria, whose armed forces, British author Patrick Seale writes in Asad (1988), consumed over 50% of the government's 1980 budget. Written more like a thriller than a biography, Seale's portrait of Hafez al-Asad describes how the Syrian President used violence and intrigue to rise from obscure poverty. Asad operates in the same way in geopolitics. In 1982, Israel, pursuing the PLO in Lebanon, smashed the occupying Syrians as well. Seale analyzes how Asad exploited bombings and assassinations and manipulated Lebanese militias to turn his humiliating defeat into even greater control of that country.
Saddam doubtless hopes to emerge from this war with a similar political victory. But he seems nowhere near as shrewd as Asad, and he has picked a much less promising battleground. For him, a better model is the Suez War, which made a regional hero of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, or the 1973 War, which briefly did the same for Anwar Sadat.
The Road to Ramadan (1975, out of print), by the prolific and entertaining Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal, is a highly readable study of the 1973 war. In the end, the Israelis gained an edge. But Arabs celebrate the war as a victory. By crossing the Suez Canal, the Egyptians proved that they could defeat the Israelis--at least at a place and time of their choosing.
That war set in motion the negotiations that led to Israel's relinquishing of the vast Sinai peninsula--a wrenching concession for Israel. A political victory for Saddam Hussein could have much more serious consequences for the U. S. in the region.