Is the Middle East under a curse? Sometimes one wonders as one reviews Israeli-Arab armed conflicts and now Saddam Hussein's invasion of peaceful Kuwait, which threatens to explode into an ugly and devastating war.
If people -- many people -- sympathized with the Iraqis as they stood firm for eight years in the Iranian war, and if they agreed with Saddam that the Gulf haves should at least pay their financial share for their protection by canceling Saddam's war debts, then no one could understand, let alone sympathize with him in his invasion of Kuwait. Even when some people would side with him in his claim to the two small islands on his borders with Kuwait, no one could condone Saddam's use of force. A charter member of the Arab League and the Arab Defense pact and a signatory to the United Nations Charter, Iraq was and remains under the obligation to seek peaceful means for the solution of its problems.
Saddam's Arab brothers came to his support recently when many in the West objected to his statement about possible use of chemical weapons if attacked by Israel. They explained that his statement was not a threat but an expression of self-defense, and as long as no Israeli attack was contemplated, the matter should be put to rest. Hardly had this incident started to fade away when the world witnessed Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Who in the Arab world could find justification or offer defense of Saddam's action? It was a stab at the Arabs before it became a threat to the oil security of the world.
How can wise men now move the Middle East from sure armed conflict to a possible peaceful solution? I must admit that positions have been sharply defined to a degree that scarcely leaves room for maneuver. This renders the task more difficult but more urgent, too.
To start, all Arab states, including Iraq and Kuwait, should confirm in an inter-Arab meeting:
That they are bound by the league's pact and the U.N. Charter.
That they commit themselves to solve their differences by peaceful means.
That Iraq commits itself to withdraw its troops from Kuwait.
That the Arab countries recognize that Iraq has a legitimate call for financial help, and cancel its war debts and provide funds to rebuild Iraq.
That differences over the Iraq and Kuwait border be mediated by the Arab League.
That withdrawal of Iraq's forces, in application of its commitment as stated above, starts with the beginning of the inter-Arab meeting, allowing the rulers of Kuwait to return to their country.
That once Iraq withdraws, the Kuwaitis pronounce in freedom whether they want to remain independent to federate or unite with Iraq.
That the Arab states that have invited non-Arab forces invite them to withdraw once the situation has returned to normal, leaving behind an Arab force that would be stationed on the border between Iraq and Kuwait.
No one wants appeasement. Iraq's Arab neighbors more than anyone else cannot afford it. Equally the Western world, which relies heavily on Arab oil, cannot afford it either. But surely we all can afford to give diplomacy a chance.
Is there a chance for success? No one wants war. While the West possesses highly sophisticated means of destruction, destruction will undoubtedly be widespread. The oil fields will face a cruel fate. Contamination from chemical warfare could be devastating.
Saddam surely realizes that the world did not move all those troops and all that equipment simply to watch Iraq digest Kuwait and pose a threat to its neighbor. Saddam should also realize that the Soviet Union can no longer repeat past roles of superpower confrontation. Nor can Iran extract him from his predicament.
For Saddam to clear his books and bank on a financially secure future, he can claim success. For Kuwait to regain its sovereignty is equally a triumph. For oil to continue to flow unhindered in peace and for world prosperity -- there lies a great achievement.
Maybe then we could persuade the Israeli leaders to contribute their share of wisdom and enter into the long awaited dialogue with the PLO to reach an honorable and lasting peaceful settlement.
Now more than ever the Middle East needs not terrorism, not extremism, not hard-liners, but wisdom and statesmanship. The writer is Egypt's former ambassador to the United States.