A Conversation with Ayad Al Qazzaz
Metta Spencer: When were you last in Baghdad, Ayad?
Ayad Al Qazzaz: In November and again three months ago for a meeting.
Spencer: Did you see things then that made you apprehensive?
Al Qazzaz: Yes, there was a campaign going against Saddam Hussein. Last February he annoyed the U.S. by asking for the removal of all American ships from the Gulf. That started a campaign against him which became more and more negative. And the economy was in a bad shape. People lined up to buy commodities from the government shops, which are much cheaper than the private shops. The Iraqi dinar used to be worth $3, but when I was there, it was worth 25 cents on the black market. I was living like a king. I would invite three people for dinner and pay $5.
Saddam was consumed with worry about how the changes in the Soviet Union were going to affect the Arab countries and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was expecting Kuwait and the other Arab countries to help solve Iraq's economic problems. He said, I went to war with Iran for my own reasons but you guys encouraged me. I was expecting a Marshall Plan from you. Instead, you are ruining the economy by producing more oil, so the price is going down.
He invaded Kuwait because he thinks Kuwait is part of Iraq. He invaded Kuwait because of this oil business. He invaded Kuwait because there was a plot to get rid of him.
Spencer: Oh, I hadn't heard of that.
Al Qazzaz: There was an article by Michael Jensen in the Los Angeles Times. And Saddam was accusing Kuwait of stealing oil.
Spencer: Tell me about this plot. Who was involved?
Al Qazzaz: The royal family of Kuwait.
Spencer: For sure?
Al Qazzaz: That's what they say. Pierre Salinger came up with the news that when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait they got hold of a few CIA agents and documented a deal that they had with Kuwait for a joint action against Iraq. But the news was dropped. Nobody else pursued it. It is plausible. But in my own analysis, Saddam over-reached his role because of a lack of intelligence-intelligence as information, I mean-and because his understanding of the West is very limited. He doesn't speak English. Not many people specialize in American studies in Iraq. I noticed that during my last trip home. I asked, "Do you guys have any institute of American studies? No? Well, how do you make your policies?"
But I think that Saddam is overstepping his limits and the U.S. is overreacting in three different ways: the speed with which we sent our forces; the quantity and quality of the arms we are sending; and third, the way we are describing Saddam: "He's a Hitler, he' s a terrorist." I don't think you can make such comparisons.
Why are we overreacting? For four reasons. First, the U.S. wants to prove that they are leaders of the international order, now that the USSR is out of the race. Second, the U.S. does not want to encourage an Arab solution. An Arab solution is detrimental to the U.S. interests. Cheney was in Sacramento here yesterday. They are not interested in giving Saddam a way out. they want to get rid of him, it's as simple as that. If they wanted to find a way out for him, they could probably do it.
Third, I think the Israelis are behind this. They want to increase animosity between the U.S. and the Arab World. And fourth, Bush thinks that it's a way to forget about deficits, military reduction, and the Savings and Loan scandal.
Spencer: Do you think Saddam is going to back down eventually?
Al Qazzaz: He might back down if you give him a few things. Say, a little bit of Kuwait, like the disputed area, the islands. Also, I think he would move very fast if you say, "Let's push Israel to move a little from the West Bank." And third, if we talk about disarming the Middle East.
Spencer: Oh! He would want that?
Al Qazzaz: Definitely, he would want that! People talk about wanting to get rid of Saddam's army, but the only way to do that is to disarm. Let's talk about serious disarmament. If the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union, can reach an agreement with the U.S, why not the Israelis and Arabs?
Spencer: Beats me.
Al Qazzaz: Saddam has chemical weapons because Israel has the bomb. So why don't we do something about it? We created this armament in the Middle East, and we can do something about it. And the White House has people who say, "Let's talk about it." George McGovern is arguing for an international conference to address all the problems of the Middle East-the problem between Israel and the Palestinians, the Iraq/Iran conflict, the disputes in Lebanon. He came on TV a few days ago and he was wonderful. He said, "For goodness sake, why don't we try these ideas out and see what might happen?" Gorbachev favors the same idea, but the Israelis won't go for it, so the U.S. won't either.
Spencer: Evidently not. How much of Saddam's weaponry came from the West and how much from the Soviets?
Al Qazzaz: A lot of it came from the West. In providing arms to Iraq, the Soviets are Number One and the French are Number Two. When you talk about chemicals, a lot of it came from the U.S.
Spencer: Doesn't he make his own?
Al Qazzaz: Probably he's making it now, but he got it from the U.S. But the idea is, he can back down, but you have to give him something. The alternative is disaster. A preemptive strike.
Spencer: Do you think that Bush would do such a thing?
Al Qazzaz: He is being pushed. He is becoming a prisoner of his own militaristic statements. And he has the wimp factor to worry about. After Panama he thought that he'd handled the wimp factor, but you never know.
Spencer: One gimmick occurred to me for saving Saddam's face. I heard someone say that he might call for a plebiscite in Kuwait. How realistic would that be?
Al Qazzaz: A lot of Kuwaitis would go for it. I had some Kuwaitis here for dinner and they would go for it .
Spencer: Was that because they feel sure that the royal family would win?
Al Qazzaz: No, the royal family is not much loved by the Kuwaitis, the Saudis, or other Arabs. But the Kuwaitis might go for it because it is better than nothing.
Spencer: A plebiscite it would have to be justified on the grounds that the previous government wasn't democratic. How democratic was it?
Al Qazzaz: Not very. It was a hereditary government, not based on elections.
Spencer: Didn't they have elections?
Al Qazzaz: The one in 1986 was cancelled. They had an election in June, but many of the Kuwaitis boycotted it because the government put lots of restrictions on who could run and what they could say.
Spencer: Do they have real parties?
Al Qazzaz: No. There are informal blocs, but not parties with charters, memberships, meetings, headquarters. They can't run slates of candidates.
Spencer: So you can say that the government was so undemocratic that it would be reasonable to call for a plebiscite.
Al Qazzaz: Well, you can, yes. But that's true of all Arab governments, including Iraq.
Spencer: So it would be the pot calling the kettle black.
Al Qazzaz: Oh yes. He's a butcher and the people of Iraq don't love him.
Spencer: Is that so? I keep hearing about how he has a lot of support throughout the Arab world.
Al Qazzaz: Yes, but not because of his accomplishments. It's because he touches on their frustrations. He's expressing their feeling of being oppressed. He's touching a nerve.
Spencer: How much of this is tied to the situation of Israel? Does most of his support come from the Palestinians in Jordan?
Al Qazzaz: Arab anger is basically against American foreign policy. One of the questions they put to me is, "You guys came to aid against Saddam, but you didn't come to aid when Israel occupied Lebanon. What kind of double standard is that?" That kind of thing is held against the U.S. government: "You sent 100,000 people to defend the Saudis, but you sent nobody to defend the Palestinians."
The Arab-Israeli situation is responsible for what is happening in Kuwait because it started the process of arming. When you buy arms, you are going to use them sooner or later. So the Arab/ Israeli conflict contributed tremendously to the arms bazaar in the Middle East. All countries spent 10 to 25 percent of their money for arms and the explanation for that is that the Arabs are frightened by the Israelis and the Israelis are frightened by the Arabs.
The extremists in the Israeli government have discouraged moderation. The Palestinians are frustrated. For three years the PLO-Arafat and his group-have said: "You asked us to renounce terrorism. What did we get out of it?" The extremists prevented moderation. I think there is an 80 percent probability of war, but of course I hope I am wrong.
Spencer: Anybody would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of their point about the U.S. having a double standard. There is only one good side to this whole business. The U.S. wanted and got U.N. backing, so the onus will be on them to recognize the U.N. in the future in their own adventures. The U.S. may have to pay more attention to the U.N. hereafter.
Al Qazzaz: It could be. You are right. But what is happening now is that it's a U.S. resolution with U.N. trappings.
Spencer: It is. If only the U.N. had led it from the beginning-
Al Qazzaz: It would have been very different, I agree. If it had been a U.N. military force instead of a U.S. one, it would have been much better. But what is happening is that 90 percent of the effort is by the U.S.-with tokenism from other countries. But yes, it is an opportunity to strengthen the U.N.
Spencer: I guess that's why the Soviets have been so flexible on the issue.
Al Qazzaz: They are flexible, but they are critical of the U.S. role. Their foreign minister complains about the U.S. buildup in the Gulf. He said it is larger than would be required for defence. Even if they get rid of Saddam, the U.S. will stay on the grounds of security. They are going to have bases. That's what they wanted and Saddam gave it to them on a silver platter!
Spencer: Could you comment on an idea of mine? I can imagine an economic blockade that resembles civil disobedience-one in which ships nonviolently block the way so the other ships can't get to the pier to unload without colliding. Do you think that might be possible?
Al Qazzaz: I don't know. How many ships are required to block the port of Aqaba? Hundreds or thousands.
Spencer: Most harbors have only a narrow channel deep enough for ships to enter. Even a few ships could block it.
Al Qazzaz: I haven't heard such a thing proposed. You're describing what is done by Greenpeace. A government operation is a very different thing.
Spencer: Yes, the most peaceable tactics they have talked about using is to shoot off the rudders or radar antennas.
Al Qazzaz: Fortunately, that has been avoided because the Iraqis are not going to run the blockade.
Spencer: If the blockade works, something will have to give way.
Al Qazzaz: Yes, but how long can you keep food and medicines from people? Is this the objective? There will be a lot of pressure.
Spencer: Saddam has answers too when he says, "Your own people will starve along with us."
Al Qazzaz: Let's hope for a compromise. What I didn't like is that Bush and the British Prime Minister said they have no hope for Perez de Cuellar's success.
Spencer: Worse than that, they said they didn't want him to attempt it! They said he shouldn't shouldn't talk to Saddam until he gets out of Kuwait.
Al Qazzaz: Yes, that keeps the Secretary-General from attaining a U.N. solution. They are not encouraging him.
Spencer: What does the Arab community in the U.S. think about all this?
Al Qazzaz: I meet some of them regularly. The Arabs all are upset with Saddam. They say that, even if he is right, he gave the U.S. an opportunity to stay there forever. The American impact is negative. I myself am upset with Saddam. This is not the way to fight Israelis, not the way to fight Americans! But I cannot accept the Americans' behavior either. So there is a split in the Arab community. Of course, the Kuwaitis are against him, the Saudis are against him. Many Palestinians, many Egyptians are for him. There have been demonstrations asking for a solution.
Spencer: Now that the Soviet Union will stop selling, where might Saddam get military goods?
Al Qazzaz: On the black market, but for that he needs a lot of money. And besides, most countries are cooperating with the embargo.
Spencer: What about a possible relationship between Iraq and Iran?
Al Qazzaz: They are moving in that direction, for several reasons. They share a hatred of the American forces. Iranians may feel: "today Iraq, tomorrow Iran."
Spencer: Will Iran break the blockade?
Al Qazzaz: Maybe not officially, but unofficially. The border is 700 miles long, some of it mountainous. There is no way you can enforce it. And the question is, is a blockade against Saddam or against the people? Some of them are starving. There is money to be made by breaking the blockade.
If Iran really lets things move, the blockade won't be over but it will be less effective. You can pressure Jordan but you cannot pressure Iran as much. If Iran breaks it, there will be China. There are lots of countries that would like to send things to Iran, but cannot.
Spencer: There are big cultural differences between Iraq and Iran in terms of modernization. Do most people accept Saddam's secularism? I understand that he even has women ministers in government.
Al Qazzaz: Oh, yes. In government, in the army, in the police, and so on. This is accepted. Many people take it for granted.
Spencer: How do the civilians feel about the military in Iraq?
Al Qazzaz: Mixed. They feel it is necessary, but on the other hand they know that money spent on the military is not improving their lot.
Spencer: Was there much overt resentment about being drafted?
Al Qazzaz: Not to my knowledge. When I was there the war was over and there was a great deal of relief. But now it is different. I have to be pessimistic on the basis of everything I see in public statements. However, we should not assume that there are no talks going on behind the scenes.