Bombers and scholars:
Gulf/2000 responds to conflict

Lawrence G. Potter
and the members of Gulf/2000

On Dec. 17, 1998, Americans found themselves in an unprecedented situation as the country faced simultaneous crises at home and abroad. A vote in the House to impeach the president, scheduled for that day, was postponed as the Clinton administration launched the largest military action against Iraq since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The president declared that by refusing to submit to United Nations monitoring of its weapons programs, "Iraq has abused its final chance." An immediate attack was unavoidable, the administration maintained, given the impending holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting for Muslims.

Many Republicans questioned the president's timing, believing the operation was a "Wag the Dog" war aimed at delaying the impeachment process. The attack, termed "Desert Fox," consisted of 70 hours of bombing raids and the launching of more than 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles between Dec. 17 and 20. Americans sat transfixed before split television screens, watching the impeachment debate juxtaposed with green images of bombs bursting over Baghdad. Never was the interplay of foreign and domestic crises so evident, or the issue of presidential leadership so crucial.

While most Americans got news of the war from newspapers or TV talking heads, a select group based at Columbia was far ahead of conventional analyses. As the bombs fell, members of Gulf/2000--a five-year-old research and documentation project on the Persian Gulf states initiated and directed by Gary G. Sick, senior research scholar and adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs--were conducting a real-time dialogue. Throughout the fall of 1998 members of the project debated, as did administration officials and diplomats from around the world, how to respond to Saddam Hussein. During the fighting and its aftermath, Gulf/2000 members continued to air their diverse views on how the United States and the international community should deal with Iraq.

Gulf/2000 has continued to expand since Professor Sick originally profiled it in 21stC.1 More than 500 individuals worldwide with a professional interest in the Persian Gulf are now linked via the Internet. A smaller group of experts from the Gulf states (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) has met intermittently to share information, build contacts, and develop mutual confidence. In July 1998 the project held its fifth international conference in Castelgandolfo, Italy, where some 30 participants considered issues such as the role of mutual perceptions, the new generation in the Gulf, and sources of regional tension (e.g., the Iran-UAE dispute over several small islands). Gulf/2000's continuing activities have already made a significant contribution to an unofficial "Track Two" process of Iranian-American reconciliation.

In the fall of 1997 St. Martin's Press published the first volume of research papers commissioned by the project, The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in Politics, Economy, Security and Religion; a second volume is in preparation. Gulf/2000 has also sponsored a number of other programs, including workshops in Camogli, Italy, in January 1997 on Iran's nuclear program and alternative energy sources and at Columbia in April 1998 for non-governmental organizations on exchanges with Iran. It also organized well-attended programs at the 1996 and 1997 annual meetings of the Middle East Studies Association.

Gulf/2000 has helped fill a crucial void in the diplomatic/scholarly world. Thanks to the project, which receives financial support from the W. Alton Jones, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Ford foundations, a community of Gulf scholars for the first time is able to exchange views on topics of possible interest. More than 50 managed discussion threads are currently in progress, from domestic politics in Iran to sanctions on Iraq or the region's usage of the Internet. The discussions are noted for their civility, and highly informed insiders often provide news that scoops the media--even, on occasion, the State Department. A number of prominent journalists monitor the forum closely, sometimes giving advance notice of breaking stories. Members in the Gulf states themselves, with the exception of Iraq, are increasingly joining the discussions. Occasions when important foreign policy issues face the nation, such as last December's attack on Iraq, are opportunities for this community to make itself heard.

Desert Fox's defenders and dissenters

Although the military action itself was brief, compared with the months of high tension in 1990-1991 when a U.S.-led international coalition ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait, international support was much weaker this time. The extensive Gulf/2000 discussion reflected this trend. Issues addressed included the wisdom and timing of the attack, the relevance of Ramadan, the number of Iraqi casualties, the attitude of other Gulf states toward Iraq, and the key question of what the United States would do after the strike. One British-based writer on foreign affairs found the discussions intriguing enough that he asked permission to place some of them on his website--a request that had to be denied, given their confidential nature.2

President Clinton's statement that to initiate military action during Ramadan would be profoundly offensive to Muslims prompted lively discussions. A U.S. Air Force officer wondered whether the local rulers had conspired to move up the opening date of Ramadan to Dec. 19 to shorten the duration of attack. Many members, however, considered Ramadan a non-issue; as one Arab writer pointed out, Iran and Iraq continued fighting for eight years during Ramadan, and Egyptians started the 1973 war with Israel during Ramadan. One member wrote:

The rush to attack before the start of the holy month of Ramadan makes it sound as if a few dead civilians before the holy month are less valuable than if they were killed during the fasting month.

An Algerian economist teaching in Denver noted that the fighting in Algeria (between the government and the Islamist opposition) actually escalates during Ramadan. And an Iranian-born member pointed out that the key early Islamic Battle of Badr (624 AD) was initiated during Ramadan by the Prophet Muhammad himself.

A political analyst based in Abu Dhabi conveyed the frustration many members felt about the operation, commenting on the first day of attack:

It would not be inaccurate to say that most Arab-Americans feel remorse and insult regarding the latest attacks on Iraq. First, I think the utmost concern for Arab-Americans would be the human cost of the attack. Let's remember the estimate given by the U.S. Administration that the first wave of attack would kill about ten thousand lives. Second, the sanctions on Iraq have already resulted in about one million casualties, most of them children. Previous military attacks on Iraq failed to force compliance or to weaken the Iraqi regime. Third, I would bet that almost all Arab-Americans would support any serious plan to remove Saddam Hussein. Finally, the timing of this bombing is awkward to say the least, and therefore, it is unlikely to lead to its intended goal. It is interesting to note that everyone is suddenly very aware of and concerned about Ramadan. But whether the killing ends before the month begins or not, I would think this would not be regarded by Muslims as an auspicious way to greet the month.

The logic and efficacy of the attacks were widely questioned. An American professor in Cairo commented:

Any attempts at degrading the military capabilities of Saddam Hussein in such a manner are targeting the symptoms instead of going after the disease. The results of cruise missile diplomacy will, unfortunately, be short term at best.

A prominent Jordanian journalist asked:

Is it possible that the U.S. and U.K. and those who support their approach to dealing with the problem of Iraqi regime behavior could consider addressing the Iraqi challenge in the same manner as, say, they dealt with the Northern Ireland problem? This would require identifying the root causes of the problems in and around Iraq, building a coalition of interested parties that are willing to work hard to address the issues, engaging the protagonists on the basis of dignity and law, and then addressing all the relevant issues with diligence and fairness. The root causes of the Iraqi problem- -and it is a problem indeed for Iraqis, other Arabs, and perhaps even people further afield--are a complex combination of historical, imperial, economic, cultural, governance, and psychological matters, involving domestic, regional and transnational forces and issues. Trying to address such a complex issue primarily with Anglo-Saxon unilateral military force is not only ineffective--this slightly out-of-control attack dog approach has become routine precisely because it is ineffective--but also morally delinquent, historically childish, and politically embarrassing. Both the Iraqi and the U.S.-U.K. leaderships are acting in an immoral and unacceptable manner, and are trying to camouflage their inadequacies under a transparent facade of violence, honor, and bravado, and both look rather silly. Iraq requires the conflict-resolution and diplomatic skills that are both available in the world and have been used successfully, such as by the U.S.-U.K. leaderships in Northern Ireland.

Others, however, endorsed the logic of the attacks. According to an Iranian security analyst based in Switzerland:

I do not know what a more subtle and humane approach might be in dealing with Saddam Hussein, but I share the regret and sadness occasioned by the use of force which probably will not achieve its ends. That said I do not see how there was any choice given the situation that has been allowed to develop. I do think that European allies of the U.S. ought to support the U.S. and stop those seeking to bilateralize the issue. The impasse that has developed however is very much the result of Saddam. Without Saddam Iraq would be different and different judgements could be made about what degree of reassurance is needed about its WMD [weapons of mass destruction] ambitions. Iran also has a WMD program. Like its policy toward Iraq, U.S. policy toward Iran makes the continuation of Tehran's program more rather than less likely. It also strains U.S. ties with its allies and diminishes its own prestige and credibility. Here there is a need to ask why states seek options on these weapons, rather than treat the motivations as criminal. All of nonproliferation policy has been in the hands of arms controllers and theologists rather than security analysts. The results are all too evident in South Asia. We need a new look at those key states that have incentives to proliferate and ask what other than occasional threats and attacks might make them less inclined to do so.

The attitude of the other Gulf states toward Iraq appears poorly understood by many Americans. In the second day of fighting, a U.K.-based Arab writer, who had spoken to officials in the region, reported that Arabs were cynically asking who would pay the cost of the operation. An Arab-American, after a postwar visit to the region, maintained that a majority of the leaders and key figures did not believe that Iraq posed a real danger to their countries, unless provoked beyond its limits. On the third day of the conflict, a member in Saudi Arabia passed along results of a poll conducted by the leading Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat (82 percent opposed the U.S. action)--adding that this figure reflected sympathy for Iraqi citizens and doubts about the efficacy of air warfare to deal with the regime, not support for Saddam Hussein.

What was accomplished?

The question of U.S. policy after the attack received much attention. As Gary Sick reminded members on Day Two of the crisis: "After Desert Storm, the U.S. was totally unprepared with a serious political strategy. Will it be any better after 'Desert Fox?'" The expectation that the inspections by the U.N. Special Commission to monitor Iraqi weapons (UNSCOM) would end was not reassuring to neighboring countries. According to a writer who returned from the Gulf during the conflict, Arabs feared that afterwards the Americans would go home (avoiding a 'war of attrition' for the American taxpayer), there would be no inspectors on the ground in Iraq, and the northern Gulf countries would be left within range of Iraqi SCUD missiles. An Iraqi close to that nation's opposition in exile pointed out that the strike was inadequate for its stated objective--to degrade Saddam's military capabilities and ability to make WMD--since it was a temporary and reversible measure: "The real value of the strike," she maintained, "will be the nature of the follow-up." She advocated that the United States restore its credibility with regional allies and pursue "diplomatic and political initiatives, intensified intelligence, louder and more emphatic messages to Iraqis, and possibly measures on the ground in Iraq."

An American consultant in Virginia bridled at the idea that the United States would cut and run:

U.S. credibility and commitment is demonstrated by the continuous deployment of thousands of men and women to the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf and America's investment in treasure and blood [contributes] to the containment of Saddam and the stability of the region. They are there in the deserts and on the ships, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and not just when CNN looks that way. The durability of the U.S. force presence has weathered deployment under harsh conditions, terrorist attacks, and a downsized Defense Department resource pool. It is through actions like the recent strikes that this commitment is proven.

Conspiracy theories are often popular with Middle Easterners to explain events. An Arab in London, for example, wondered whether the U.S. arms industry was behind the war. In response, an Iranian-born banker in Chicago lamented "the narrow-minded and conspiratorial approach that characterizes regional thinking":

The idea that the U.S. is out to destroy the economies and the body politic of whole regions (and its potential markets) just to ensure its hegemony defies any economic logic.... Promoters of this point of view have no idea of how the global economy works. Moreover, while the U.S. foreign policy has unfortunately more often than not been closely aligned with the interests of Israel, I do not think that there is an anti-Arab conspiracy. In fact, as painful as it is, the truth of the matter is that most of the time, the Middle East is a very minor concern for any U.S. Administration, a "sideshow of a sideshow." By the same token, oil security is far less of an issue now than ten or twenty years ago. In fact, the price of oil is not a major factor in the U.S. economy, nor is its supply. The same people that are so adamant in their attacks on the U.S. are unfortunately all too often willing to overlook the violence committed by the Middle East leaders against their own populations and their neighbors. The question in my mind is whether or not we can learn in the Middle East to overcome the ancient hatreds, the violence and the prejudices--just like the people of Latin America or Asia have done--and work for the modernization and the democratization of our countries.

As the crisis wound down, one observer commented:

There is bound to be a period of uncertainty and instability in Iraq when Saddam departs. The real question is how we can make this transition less troubled and safer. Perhaps this is a project that Gulf/2000 can think about.

Project members have indeed tried to determine the facts and continued to debate the issues concerning the turbulent situation in the Gulf. By exposing American policy-makers, academics, journalists, and business leaders to informed worldwide opinion, the project has helped raise the standards of national dialogue on Middle East policy and given Americans more input into the decision-making process. When the next Gulf crisis erupts, members know that Gulf/2000 will be there for them. The project might now serve as a model for better understanding of other troubled world regions.

1. Sick, Gary. "Gulf/2000: The Digital Peacemakers." 21stC 1.2 (fall 1995): 5-6.

2. The excerpts here are presented anonymously, with the consent of the Gulf/2000 community, to preserve confidentiality.

Related links . . .

  • "Crisis with Iraq," U.S. Information Agency

  • "Crisis in the Gulf," BBC News

  • Middle East Research and Information Project

  • Assorted sites on Middle East studies, Middle East Center, U. of Pennsylvania

  • Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies

  • Iraq-related reports, Megastories media briefing service, Out There News

  • Pacifica Radio's Watch on Iraq

  • Iraq timeline, Washington Post

  • The Iraq Foundation

  • MidEast Citizen Diplomacy, non-profit organization dedicated to Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation

  • Payvand News of Iran

  • Progressive Muslims Network

  • Al J. Venter, "How Saddam Almost Built His Bomb," Jane's Intelligence Review

  • Noam Chomsky interview on the Iraq crisis, Frontline, India

  • LAWRENCE G. POTTER, Ph.D., is adjunct assistant professor of international affairs at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and deputy director of Gulf/2000.

    Photo Credits Soldiers: AP / Wide World Photos
    Computer Illustration: Howard R. Roberts
    Special Computer Effects: Howard R. Roberts
    Lewinsky, Clinton, Hussein: AP / Wide World Photos