The bolstering of U.S. offensive capability in the Persian Gulf raises fresh concerns about the probability of war. Discussions have centered on the short-range military prospects of subduing Iraq. Little attention is given to the impact a war would have on the emotions of the billion-strong community of Moslems (including 6 million American Moslems) and what it would mean for long-term Western interests.
Moslem perceptions would be guided more by passions than by Western expectations of logic and rationality. The governments in the moneyed gulf belt of the Arabian peninsula are neither representative nor respected, with ruling elites owing their positions to the right blood line. These oligarchs willingly embrace Western technology and put their billions in Western banks, but they are considerably less enthusiastic about opening their societies to Western notions of democracy.Against this backdrop, the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf may serve to widen the gulf between moneyed Moslem elites and Moslem masses; popular Islam with its appeal for socioeconomic equity and official Islam patronized by the oligarchies; and Islam and the West.
A war in the gulf would not end the crisis for the United States, the Arab establishment and Israel, which are seen by Moslem activists as having formed a trident pointing at Iraq. Even if the contest is short and intense, Iraq will benefit from sympathy among Moslems, who will see it as an outgunned underdog at the short end of a struggle with a superpower.
Moreover, any shedding of Iraqi Moslem blood could have a galvanizing, and even an inflammatory, effect on the mood of Moslem masses worldwide. The fact that Iraq sparked the crisis by invading Kuwait would pale into insignificance. This is particularly likely at a time of ascending Islamic populist fervor, which is cutting across national boundaries to reach places as far apart as Turkey, Algeria, the USSR and Indonesia.
Recent history in the Middle East shows that thrashing an adversary on the battlefield does not necessarily ensure peace and security. Israel's trouncing of Arab armies in 1967 did not buy peace. Instead, it highlighted the Palestinian dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Likewise, Iraq's likely defeat by U.S.-led forces, though applauded by Israel and facilitated by the Arab establishment, would be felt as a Moslem humiliation and could very well introduce a pan-Islamic backlash. Incalculable power could, in effect, be handed Islamic revanchist forces. Pan-Islamism may prove a far more lethal and appealing weapon than pan-Arabism, rooted as it is in the beckoning of pristine Moslem glory.
Ironically, a U.S. military victory in the Middle East might, in the long term, be a political disaster because of the unintended forces it could unleash - which makes it all the more imperative that American troops now be gradually replaced by Moslem troops under the United Nations flag. This could be the first step in fashioning an Islamic solution to the problem of Saddam Hussein.
War could radicalize the region for generations and destabilize the very system of security which the United States has ostensibly gone to the gulf to strengthen. In one of history's great ironies, the secular Saddam might become the catalyst for Ayatollah Khomeini's unfinished agenda of spreading revolutionary Islam.
If the West winds up with greater control of the natural resources of the Moslem world, that fact alone could inadvertently help make Saddam a lightning rod of Moslem aspirations. If that happens, Operation Desert Shield may become a desert trap.