THE bolstering of United States 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 Muslims (including 6 million American Muslims) and what it would mean for long-term Western interests. Muslim 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 US presence in the Persian Gulf may serve to widen the gulf between (1) moneyed Muslim elites and Muslim masses; (2) popular Islam with its appeal for socioeconomic equity and official Islam patronized by the oligarchies; and (3) Islam and the West.
A war in the Gulf would not end the crisis for the US, the Arab establishment, and Israel, which are seen by Muslim activists as having formed a trident pointing at Iraq. Even if the contest is short and intense, Iraq will benefit from sympathy among Muslims, who will see it as an outgunned underdog at the short end of a struggle with a superpower.
Moreover, any shedding of Iraqi Muslim blood could have a galvanizing, and even an inflammatory, effect on the mood of Muslim 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 US-led forces, though applauded by Israel and facilitated by the Arab establishment, would be felt as a Muslim 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 Muslim glory.
The first target of popular ire would be the Arab establishment. This is why the Saudis, for example, could get cold feet. Israel also could be doubly pressed by resurgent Muslim activism in its region and by a Washington less tolerant of its indefinite occupation of Arab territories.
Ironically, a US 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 Muslim 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 US 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.
At the moment, Saddam has three key cards to play in the Muslim world: (1) the Israeli card; (2) the Robin Hood card of social justice; and (3) the Islamic card. He will continue to portray Iraq as a lone Muslim country whose adamant opposition to Israel has caused it to be encircled by modern-day Western crusaders and Arab quislings. By knocking out the opulent House of Sabah of Kuwait, Saddam is playing to the Muslim masses' sense of injustice about why so few have so much and so many have so little.
If the West winds up with greater control of the natural resources of the Muslim world, that fact alone could inadvertently help make Saddam a lightning rod of Muslim aspirations. If that happens, Operation Desert Shield may become a desert trap.