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Iraq to the fore

Iraq celebrates its National Day today -- an anniversary which marks two events: the overthrow 22 years ago of the monarchy and the advent to power 12 years ago of the Baath socialist regime. Normally this is not the subject of editorial comment. But, given the enormous political shifts taking place in the Middle East, this is a fitting occasion to call attention to Iraq as an up-and-coming power in the region.

The change is dramatic. Only a few years ago diplomats in the West worried that this "radical" country in the Persian Gulf might fall completely into the Soviet embrace. Yet, as we learn (and forget) so often, human history is not static and it is not always predictable. Far from turning into a Soviet satellite, Iraq is coming out of its isolation and emerging as a dominant leader of the Arab world.

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Political and economic factors account for this modern-day development in the land of ancient Babylon. Endowed with an abundance of oil, Iraq is carrying out an ambitious plan for economic growth. This has brought it into increasingly closer contact with the rest of the world, above all countries of the West, and driven home the need for stability -- both within and outside Iraq's borders.

What is noteworthy about Iraq is its disciplined, careful approach to economic development. Unlike other countries in the region, Iraq is not squandering its immense oil revenues on high living. Instead, through enlightened (if extremely authoritarian) policies, the regime has boosted living standards, given rights to women, and advanced education and the arts (it even got the UNESCO prize last year for the best literacy program). All these achievements have enabled the Baath government, for all its repressiveness and despite potentially troublesome religious and ethnic tensions, to hang on to power and ensure a high measure of political stability.

These gains are also helping President Saddam Hussein to achieve his foreign policy goal: that of staking out a role for Iraq as leader of the nonaligned world. One aspect of this diplomacy is the containment of Soviet expansionism. The Iraqis never were comfortable with their Soviet friends, and the invasion of Afghanistan, together with the political turmoil in neighboring Iran, have spurred Baghdad's police of nonalignment. In the wake of the Shah's fall, in fact, Iraq seeks to replace Iran as guardian of the Gulf region and, toward this end and with the help of Western arms, is vigorously building up its military capability.

To the extent that this policy edges Iraq away from the Soviet Union and prevents the Russians from gaining a toehold in the Gulf, it can be viewed in a positive light. But Iraq is bending its efforts to keeping out the United States militarily as well -- in other words, it wants neither superpower on the Gulf's doorstep. Iraqi nonalignment therefore works somewhat to the advantage of the Soviets, who are geographically closer to the area. Yet it remains to be seen how the policy works in practice. Iraq's split with radical syria and its improving ties with the moderate states of Saudi Arabia and Jordan seem to be further developments that could foster Western interests.

American support for Israel and failure to resolve the Palestinian question still stand as a block to the resumption of diplomatic ties between Iraq and the United States. But there is little question that the US must weigh Iraq carefully in any future strategic planning on the Middle East. Not only is Iraq a big supplier of petroleum to the West. It has the strongest armed forces in the Gulf area. It is also a potential nuclear power -- something which cannot but concern Washington.

The Iraqis, in short, are beginning to flex their political and economic muscle. This adds a new ingredient to the swirl of change taking place in the Middle East and is bound to influence power balances there. As President Hussein goes around his country mingling with common folk, kissing babies, and playing the popular leader in an effort to overcome the strong-arm image of his regime, he no doubt calculates the world is watching. Common sense tells us it had better be.

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