Whenever they run out of ideas, diplomats come up with the phrase "wait-and-see". This has been the position of Arab states from the beginning of the crisis that, rising in the middle of 2002, led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even the arrival of a foreign army in a major Arab capital for the first time in almost six decades did not change that position. The Arabs waited and waited, and in a sense they are still waiting, but ended up by seeing little or nothing.
Instead of seeing anything after their long wait, they ended up being seen as a coalition of strange bedfellows quarrelling over a common nightmare.
Should the Arabs continue with a position that has scripted them out of developments in Iraq? Is "wait-and-see" the best they can do in the face of the most dramatic change in the balance of power in the Middle East since the Khomeinist seizure of power in Tehran in 1979?
Most Arabs originally adopted the "wait-and-see" posture in the hope that they would not be affected by events in Iraq. But the fact is that they have all been affected in one way or another. Although President Hosni Mubarak is still in place, with his party still in control of the parliament, Egypt is not what it was back in 2002. In Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Kaddhafi may well maintain a stiff upper-lip as if nothing has changed. But even a day trip to Tripoli would reveal the tsunami of change that is taking shape within the North African pariah state. Need one mention Lebanon and Syria or even Jordan which has suddenly discovered that fire in a neighbour”s house could spread to one”s own?
Having waited for almost three years, it is, perhaps, time for the Arab powers to decide what they can actually see in Iraq after their long wait.
The first thing that they cannot fail to see is that there has been a change of regime in Baghdad. A structure of despotic repression built over more than half a century has crumbled, proving once again, if proof were needed, that a modern polity cannot be sustained through military and security organisations.
One can also see that very few Iraqis regret the demise of the Saddamite system which, transited into practical politics, means that the ancien regime has no chance of being even partially restored. Those who have been waiting for the emergence of some version of Saddamism, including a "lite” one, Baghdad must now see that this is not going to happen.
While waiting the Arabs have also seen how Iraq has met the challenge of one of the most savage versions of Islamist terror with a determination to crush it. It must be clear by now that the unholy alliance of Al Qaeda terrorists and Ba”athist gangsters has absolutely no chance of forcing the people of Iraq into submission. Over the past three decades similar coalitions of terrorists tried to impose their will on Egypt and Algeria only to be ultimately defeated. Iraq will be the third graveyard of Islamist terror.
Some of the "wait-and-see" Arabs had hoped that, if they waited long enough, they would see the Americans rushing into another French leave of the kind they have trademarked since they fled from Saigon in 1975. But that, too, has not happened and is unlikely to happen, at least for as long as George W Bush is in the White House. And that is a long time even for the most lethargic of the "wait-and-see" tribe. Rather than talking of merely "staying the course" in Iraq, Bush now promises "total victory." The real question, therefore, concerns the conditions under which the US would maintain a strong military presence right in the heart of the Middle East.
With regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, the jigsaw that represented the balance of power in the region has been thrown into the air, its many pieces plummeting in different directions and at different speeds. Because the Arab states are among these pieces it would not do for them to remain mere observers of the way the new jigsaw is being shaped.
Paralysed by "wait-and-see" over Iraq the Arab powers suffer two consequences. The first is that they postpone the return of Iraq to their fold as a leading power thus weakening their overall position.
The second is that without a coherent position on Iraq, the Arab powers would unable to develop a common strategy for dealing with other major changes in the region, including the new context in which the Palestine-Israel issue is being reshaped. There is also the return of Iran as an aggressive power with openly stated hegemonic ambitions. And need we mention the growing military links that several Arab states are forging with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)?
Several urgent steps need to be taken.
The first is to publicly acknowledge that Iraq has a new government that represents the freely expressed will of its people. Any attempt at questioning the legitimacy of that government, especially by regimes whose own legitimacy is a matter of debate, could only encourage the Jihadists across the region.
Secondly, a full cancellation of Iraq”s foreign debts must be announced. This would allow the slate to be wiped clean both in financial and political terms. The people of Iraq would be able to forget that one reason why Saddam Hussein had been able to hang on to power was because several Arab states continued to bankroll him for years.
Thirdly, the Arabs must end their "yes-no-maybe-no-yes" approach to the need for speeding up the training of the new Iraqi army and police force. If the Arab countries that are in a position to help were to actually do so, the time needed for Iraq to complete the creation of its new army and police could be cut by half. And that, in turn, cold hasten the departure of the US-led coalition forces.
Finally, the Arabs need to take a united stand in defence of Iraq”s independence and territorial integrity. This is needed to forestall Iranian ambitions for claiming a central role in Iraq”s domestic politics. Many Iraqi leaders, fearful that the Americans might simply run away, have looked to Iran for re-insurance. If the Arabs were to offer Iraq an alternative, chances are that the Iranian re-insurance would not be as attractive as it is today.
The Arab powers need not send any troops to Iraq. In fact, they shouldn”t because that could sharpen sectarian suspicions and create more problems than it might solve. But they should make it clear that if and when necessary they would be prepared to assist Iraq in resisting any military pressure from any of its neighbours.
With or without Arab help, Iraq is destined to overcome its current difficulties and will re-emerge as a major regional power within the next decade. It is thus more in the interest of the Arab powers to be associated with Iraq”s attempt at building a new life rather than sitting on the fence, watching and waiting.