Prepare Today for Our Next Crisis Over Iraq

By Johan Galtung And Dietrich Fischer

The recent agreement on unimpeded weapons inspections that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reached with Iraq represents an outstanding diplomatic breakthrough. This window of opportunity should be used to find a more durable solution, to prevent a periodic recurrence of such dangerous crises.

Clearly, Saddam Hussein, who has repeatedly used chemical weapons against Iran and even against his own people in the gas attack on Kurdish civilians at Halabja in 1988, cannot be allowed to keep weapons of mass destruction. But bombing Iraq would hardly have solved that problem, because these weapons can be hidden in very small areas. An occupation of Iraq with ground troops might be able to find and destroy concealed weapons and their factories, but that might require two million troops or a force equal to 10% of Iran's population, and there is no support for this.

After a bombing campaign, further inspections might have been impossible. A rise in fundamentalism among Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, could have brought down some regimes. Terrorism might have increased. Cooperation between Russia and China, induced by the expansion of NATO and closer U.S.-Japanese military cooperation, could have deepened, perhaps leading to a new military alliance that might de facto include Iraq and Iran.

A more effective approach is a firm but patient strategy, which brought an end to the Cold War. The West did not "roll back the iron curtain," as some recommended, because that could have led to mutual annihilation. Instead, the Soviet Union was contained for forty years. A series of arms control agreements and numerous citizen-to-citizen contacts finally made Gorbachev's reforms possible and led to the downfall of the Berlin Wall.

A decisive turning point preparing the end of the Cold War was the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from 1973-75, in which all parties of the East-West conflict were invited to the table and all issues were put on the table, with enough time to address them in depth. This made trade-offs possible, ensuring that everyone gained something.

A similar "Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East" could address not only the problem of Iraq, but also the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Kurdish issue. A Palestinian state and Kurdish autonomy or independence should not be excluded as options. A comprehensive dialogue is needed, in which all parties are heard. In return for Iraqi new guarantees of free access to UNSCOM inspectors, Iraq's repeated request for a dialogue should be granted. Refusing to give others a voice is a sign of weakness, not strength. The embargo, which by UNICEF's estimates has so far caused the death of 1,210,000 children and 960,000 adults, should be ended.

It would be preferable for such a conference not to be chaired by outside big powers, but by somebody from the region, such as Jordan's King Hussein and his brother.

A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, with permanent and effective verification, should be high on the agenda. Strict implementation of the treaties banning biological and chemical weapons must be assured. The United Nations, in cooperation with the Arab League, could organize a major U.N. peacekeeping operation in the area, with several hundred thousand troops stationed on either side of critical borders. Better ways need to be found to monitor and protect human rights in the whole region and to reduce gross economic inequality.

One of the best ways to get successful negotiations started may be to focus initially on areas of mutual benefit. Such approaches helped end the century-old hostility between Germany and France after World War II, and brought a thaw in the tense U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s.

Issues of common concern to all Middle Eastern countries include the management of scarce water resources, and oil policy. A Middle East common market, with Israel as a full member, should be studied and negotiated.

Many believe one should not waste time with secondary issues and focus exclusively on the main conflict. However, that is usually also the most difficult issue to agree on. A more successful strategy has generally been to focus first on issues of mutual interest, on which agreement is relatively easy to achieve. Small successes can improve the climate and prepare the way for solving more controversial problems later. As Churchill once said, "It should be possible to settle something before settling everything."

The recent crisis with Iraq has come and gone - just one more in a sad series that have become almost regular. Peace activists became engaged, as usual, with a few public demonstrations and much letter-writing, which ceased as soon as Kofi Annan had accomplished his remarkable feat of diplomacy. It is enough to turn even honest observers into cynics as we witness the fleeting nature of commitment to peace. We pursue peace sporadically, too often reactively, and only so long as there is an imminent threat of violence involving "our side." And worse yet, our method tends to be the cheap approach - to identify which side is blameworthy - rather than the harder approach: to facilitate negotiation among the various parties to the dispute by treating them as all having some fundamental legitimacy in their complaints.

This time, to be sure, the publicity given to the ongoing sanctions against Iraq and to the ongoing deaths of innocent children will make it harder to forget their plight and resume our routine preoccupations. And there were meetings designed to stir up our feelings and make us promise not to ignore the effect of the continuing embargo.

Unfortunately, the trouble with the Iraq crisis, as with the many nationalistic wars of the 1990s, is that these are far more complex problems than the nuclear arms race, which has such an obvious solution that any normal person can see it immediately: disarm. Any solution to the Iraq mess can arise only from a comprehensive solution to a wide set of interlocking Middle Eastern problems, none of which can be reduced to right-versus-wrong, since they involve the incompatible but genuine rights and needs of several different groups.

We cannot solve Iraq without listening to the wider complaints of the Arabs who have come to support Saddam Hussein, if only because their concerns are not otherwise heard. We cannot solve Iraq merely by admonishing the United States to be more humane and by ignoring the possible dangers of chemical and biological weapons, thus allowing Americans to claim a certain prudential legitimacy for their policies. We cannot solve Iraq without taking account of the global oil market, which may be a more powerful underlying factor than the ones usually expressed. We cannot solve Iraq without confronting the problems that Israel's hard-line government uses to justify its own intransigent rejection of the Oslo peace process. All these problems are interdependent and none of them will be solved without making progress on all of them - plus others, such as Saddam Hussein's conflict with Iran, the Kurds, and the Shiites.

All this requires more than slogans; it requires a sophisticated analysis and a sustained political campaign in favor of a negotiated settlement. And in creating the conditions for successful dispute resolution, we should adopt the methods that enable good negotiators (such as Kofi Annan) to succeed - patience, universalism, a respectful style that does not include the castigation of any party, and a search for possible deals that meet the expressed and unexpressed needs of all the parties. Finally, we must confront our friends and allies when their actions are significant for the outcome. Thus a comprehensive solution will require that Israel and the United States compromise too - a fact of which Canada, as their ally, must firmly, unrelentingly remind them. This is our task; let us do it.

The authors are long-time peace researchers - Galtung as a peripetatic professor and Fischer at Pace University.

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Johan Galtung here
Search for other articles by Dietrich Fischer here

Peace Magazine homepage