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Hussein and the Arabs: A Quest for Identity

THE inevitable comparisons to Munich have been made many times over, to illustrate that, if not stopped, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein will set his sights upon other Middle-Eastern nations as he did hapless Kuwait. But Hussein's perceptibly thin motives belie the underlying problem faced by all the Arab states save one: They are struggling to achieve an identity, one defined by something other than a common language and borders drawn by Western colonial powers. One way to do that, when one has an army of 1 million men, is to use it. Case in point: King Hussein of Jordan. Normally considered a friend of the US, the king has spoken in defense of Saddam and pretended that outside intervention is the real threat, angering his supporters in Washington. But Hussein is merely reacting, albeit childishly, to his predicament. Jordan is financially bankrupt, and Hussein has lost any control over events in the West Bank and in any peace process. Forced by Arab ``brethren'' to accept the PLO as the legitimate spokesman for the Palestinian people on top of his loss of the West Bank, Hussein has been reduced to insignificance while his country crumbles.

The Hashemite Kingdom was founded on very little from the beginning. Transjordan, part of the British Palestine Mandate, was broken off in 1922 from the territory of the Balfour declaration by then-Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who bragged, ``I created Jordan with the stroke of my pen.'' The first ruler, Amir Abdullah, operated within a framework strictly dictated by Whitehall. His greatest problems came from incursions of Wahhabis, ultra-orthodox Muslims in collusion with Ibn Sa'ud, who had forced the Hashemites from the Arabian peninsula in the first place. Virtually Abdallah's entire reign until his death in 1951 was defined by what he could get from the British and what he was forced to give in return. King Hussein, who acceded to the throne upon his father Talal's deposition a year later, has struggled ever since to carve out a measure of independence.

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In a foolish move, Hussein lost to Israel the West Bank that his grandfather had annexed in 1949. Yet even the earlier annexation had been recognized only by Britain and Pakistan. Jordan has been threatened almost constantly since by both Syria and the PLO, and was even obliged to accept Israeli posturing against Syria for its protection. The extent to which Jordan has gone to stay in Saddam's graces is illustrated by an editorial in a July issue of the Amman daily Sawt al Sha'b: ``The claim that Iraq is going to invade Kuwait is phony ... the West and the Americans are trying to stir up things in the Gulf.''

Iraqi aggression against Kuwait calls for a historical look. Iraq as a nation-state has no secure foundation: there are five regions with varying proportions of Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The country was carved out of three provinces of the Ottoman empire in 1920, including the territory of Kuwait, to suit the aims of Great Britain. To add insult to injury, Britain then imposed a foreign institution, kingship, and an alien ruling family, the Hashemites, on Iraq. Iraq's claim to Kuwait dates to 1932 when King Ghazi called for Kuwait's annexation, based on the fact that Kuwait had been part of the Ottoman empire. As recently as 1973, Iraqi and Kuwaiti forces fought over Kuwaiti territory.

Syria, quiet concerning the fall of Kuwait, has a similar problem. Its legacy is one of French colonial construction, which drew the lines creating Lebanon, something many Syrians never accepted. Indeed, Hafez Al-Assad said in 1972, ``Syria and Lebanon are a single country.'' The establishment of Lebanon resulted not from Arab action but from a British-French agreement before, and a French mandate after, World War I. Unlike prosperous and orderly Kuwait the 30,000- 40,000 Syrian troops intervening in Lebanon since 1975 have never been able to subjugate the menagerie of militia groups that bloody the soil of the Cedars.

Egypt, which has enjoyed a long sense of statehood and more-or-less unbroken political boundaries, is impoverished but generally secure about who it is and what it wants. Ask an Egyptian what he is, and he will likely say `` Arab'' third, ``Muslim'' or ``Christian'' second, but ``Egyptian'' first. Saudi Arabia, for its part, came about in 1932 largely by one man, Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa'ud, and enjoys a cohesiveness lacking in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. What may appear as a Saudi lack of will to protect itself derives from a pan-Arab sense of obligation, the vastness of Saudi territory and the difficulty of defending it with a comparatively small population, and from the special role that the Saudi king plays as the custodian of the Islamic holy places.

As events unfold, the US will find itself more closely tied to the Saudis, and that is correct, for that regime has done an admirable job of providing for its people and protecting Western interests - access to oil at stable prices. But judging Arab intentions and capabilities through Western eyes ignores the history and predicament that Arabs labor under. Arab states, due to the way they were created by Europe, are not nation-states in our sense and can't be counted on to follow Western ``logic.''

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