US Vice-President Dick Cheney arrived yesterday in a Middle East far more concerned with the firestorm between the Palestinians and the Israelis than with Washington's plans for a war with Iraq.
President George Bush may believe Iraq is part of an "axis of evil" but it was clear from their reactions to Mr Cheney's mission that there will be no chance of an Arab "coalition" against Saddam Hussein of the kind that Mr Bush's father rallied 12 years ago. Most Arabs would prefer Mr Cheney to deal with the Arab-Israeli war so Mr Bush's ineffective envoy, General Anthony Zinni, could burn up his energies encouraging a war that no one here wants.
Turkey was among the first to warn of the effects of an attack on Iraq. Bulent Ecevit, Turkey's Prime Minister, talked of the "very sensitive balances" of the Turkish economy, adding that an Iraqi war would seriously affect his country. "While the Iraq issue hangs over us like a nightmare, you can't expect much new investment to come to Turkey," he said.
Jordan was far more pointed in its remarks. King Abdullah, whose father, Hussain, was forced by public opinion to stay away from the last anti-Iraqi coalition, said a war against Saddam would have a "catastrophic effect" on the Middle East. "Striking Iraq represents a catastrophe for Iraq, and threatens the security and stability of the region," he said. The Saudis are just as unenthusiastic and even Kuwait, rescued by America and its allies in 1991, has serious reservations.
Most Middle East nations opposed the bombardment of Afghanistan but insisted that even if the Americans struck the Taliban, an assault on Iraq would be met with Arab hostility. Privately, pro-western leaders in the Arab world have grave concerns about the Bush theory of "regime change". For if Iraqis were helped to overthrow their dictatorial government, what if Egyptian or Saudi citizens also decided on a little "regime change" of their own?
President Hosni Mubarak, for example, is known to be fearful of the effect of an anti-Iraqi strike. The Egyptians, slow to anger in the best of days and virtually silent during the bombardment of Afghanistan, may not be able to stomach both an American war against Iraq and the bloody attempt to suppress the Palestinian intifada by America's only real ally in the region.
The Saudis, who flew their odd little "peace plan" this month, courtesy of Crown Prince Abdullah and Tom Friedman of The New York Times (Lebanese journalists suspect the prince's personal adviser, Adel al-Jubair, dreamt it all up) will not want American planes flying to bomb Iraq from bases in the country of Islam's holiest shrines. But they did just that in 1991 and it is still possible – just – that the Saudis might close their eyes if US jets operated out of the kingdom for a short time.
Mr Cheney's mission appears in the Middle East to be more a symptom of Washington's myopia than any long-term US strategy. "They already have one war on their hands out here," one Lebanese commentator said. "Why do the Americans need another?"
It's not that the Arabs like Saddam. They know he is a cruel dictator. But listening to Tony Blair remind the world for the umpteenth time that Saddam used chemical weapons "against his own people" only reminds Arabs that Saddam also used chemical weapons – in far greater quantities – against Iran when the West was enthusiastically backing Iraq's aggression against the Islamic Republic.
Put simply, the Arabs don't want the Americans to package a new war for them; they want Washington to re-examine its entire policy in the Middle East. They want Mr Cheney to glance over his shoulder at the bloodbath in Israel and "Palestine".
And that is what they will politely tell him in Amman and Riyadh and Kuwait. Only in Israel, whose Prime Minister thinks he is fighting a "war on terror", will he hear what he wants to hear. Will that be enough?Reuse content