Arab states working for coup, but that won’t stop the U.S.

Saddam and his son Qusay confer while a Saudi plan hopes to isolate the Iraqi leader and his inner circle. But will that be enough to stop the United States? (Photo ® INA/AP)

The states around Iraq — Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey — have been buzzing in recent days with desperate last minute plans to avoid a United States invasion and occupation of Iraq. My email box was full this morning with various reports, including:

And last, but not least, the Saudis are apparently looking to get that Russian coup plot back on track, saying all but about 100 to 120 senior Iraqi officials should be offered amnesty under a U.N. resolution. The resolution would be offered just prior to the fireworks as a signal to Iraqi generals that now is the time to save their own skins. (See more on Russian coup plots here.)
If he is toppled but not killed — a highly unlikely prospect, frankly — he could find shelter in any number of countries. Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, Belarus, Cuba or North Korea have been mentioned as possible sanctuaries. And what’s up with that monster palace supposedly being built outside of Beirut? But honestly, it’s not likely that Saddam will flee. He had a chance in 1991 when Egypt offered him asylum in an effort to avert the Gulf War and he declined. (Just as a point of interest, Egypt has been especially welcoming to disgraced Arab leaders, hosting King Saud of Saudi Arabia when he was forced to abdicate in 1955, Yemeni President Abdellah al Salal when he was overthrown in 1966, the Shah after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri after he was ousted in 1985.)
What’s interesting is the disconnect between what Arab leaders understand and what the American public has been led to believe. Regional leaders do not want a strong American presence as it would be highly destabilizing and no one wants to rule at the pleasure of a colonizing power. (And let’s face it, if the United States conquers Iraq and begins to exploit its oil revenues, it’s a colonizing power.) Europe and Russia, especially, are looking for ways to check America’s power in the world, hoping to avoid a further expansion of America’s hegemony.
But to the American people, the Bush administration has finally settled on WMD as the public rationale for attacking Iraq. Not a bad choice, as more than three-quarters of the American people favor war if weapons are found, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The problem for Bush is, if no weapons are found, only 29 percent would favor invasion and 63 percent would oppose it. (I discussed earlier the real, strategic reasons for going to war, when I said the White House must conquer Iraq because of the necessity of establishing a forward military presence in the region to a) secure a supply of oil, b) put pressure on the Saudis to stop financing Al Qa’ida and c) encircle Iran.)
Focusing on the WMD issue has boxed Bush in, although he had little choice. Naked aggression in the service of imperialism doesn’t poll well, but when the words “nuclear” and “Saddam” are mentioned in the same sentence, the public suddenly thinks sending in the 82nd Airborne isn’t such a bad idea.
Let’s say the U.N. inspectors don’t find anything but Iraq manages to convince no one it’s disarmed. The situation would devolve into a stalemate with France and Russia blocking America and the U.K. on the Security Council. World and domestic opinion would strongly oppose military action in such a situation, but geostrategic interests require American bases in Iraq. What to do?
The problem is that Bush has bet America’s credibility. After such a huge military buildup and a year of war rhetoric, the president can’t simply say, “Oops, never mind” and go home. Bush could decide to go in anyway and hope for a quick, clean victory. If he gets it, he will likely suffer only short term fallout. A backup plan would be to tell regional leaders the United States would support a coup, but would instead move troops in to “establish order” after the coup, accomplishing its objectives and — bonus! — double crossing the Saudis.
But if it’s not clean and quick and the aftershocks reverberate through the region, toppling perhaps Pakistan and Saudi Arabia into the hands of Islamists and strengthening the ayatollahs in Iran, it could sink Bush’s presidency. The Pew poll shows the public’s appetite for war without strong justification is not there. As such, the United States desperately needs the inspectors to find WMD in Iraq. And those empty chemical warheads won’t cut the mustard gas.