Interesting Iraq

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2003, 12:00am

Several weeks ago, I was having lunch with an American diplomat when he brought up the question of Iraq. Why is it, he asked, that people in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia do not seem to be very interested in Iraq?

Well, he did something to rectify the situation. To enhance interest in Iraq, the United States government this week brought to Hong Kong an expert on the Middle East, Michael Doran, an assistant professor at Princeton University.

Professor Doran spoke at the University of Hong Kong on Wednesday evening, drawing an audience of more than 100 people. Panel members were Chong Chan-yau, executive director of Oxfam, Richard Hu, of the university's department of politics and public administration, and myself.

Professor Doran made a compelling case for American military action. He said an Iraqi hegemony in the Persian Gulf would be dangerous for the American and the global economy, which I think is certainly a good reason why countries in Asia ought to be interested.

He said the US was unable to maintain sanctions against Iraq, following increasing criticism that the measures were killing children and not hurting the Iraqi regime. In the absence of sanctions, Iraq would grow powerful and be a threat to its neighbours.

A perceptive member of the audience asked whether the issue of weapons of mass destruction, frequently raised by the US, was in fact, a red herring. Professor Doran readily agreed that that was the case. The issue, he said, was whether the US should 'overthrow Saddam or hand the Gulf to him' because Iraq's neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were not strong enough to resist Iraq.

The choice, he said, was between a US order in the Gulf, or an Iraqi order.

The US, he said, was trying to restructure its relationship with the Middle East and to shift the balance of power in America's favour.

After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was toppled, Professor Doran said, the US would be able to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia, thereby eliminating a major irritant in that relationship.

I must say that, put that way, American actions sound logical, at least.

Previously, it just sounded as thought President George W. Bush had an obsession with Iraq and its president.

It is unclear if China - the only Asian country with a veto in the United Nations Security Council - will find that argument persuasive.

China may well prefer to cut its own deal with Iraq rather than face an expansion of American influence in the Gulf. If the US wants China on its side, it will have to demonstrate convincingly that Chinese interests in this instance coincide with American ones.

So far, none of the major powers have come out implacably against war. Their position, as the European Union said in its statement on Monday, is that 'force should be used only as a last resort', not that it should never be used.

China is likely to go along if a majority in the Security Council decide that the time has come.

From a tactical standpoint, the US should probably continue to push its case in the UN on the basis that Iraq has been defying the Security Council for over a decade. The council's Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously in November, called on Iraq to disarm and, quite clearly, Mr Hussein is not complying.

His 'co-operation' with inspectors is literally a game of hide and seek.

Instead of handing over for destruction the weapons that he is not supposed to have, the Iraqi leader has hidden them and is challenging the inspectors to find them. These include an estimated 1,020 tonnes of nerve gas and several litres of anthrax.

France is said to prefer March 14 as the date for UN inspectors to make a full report to the Security Council. If this is also the position of Russia and China, then the US would be well advised to put off plans for military action until then.

At this point, it looks as if the outbreak of war is just a matter of timing. The best resolution of the current impasse is for the Iraqis themselves to remove their leader.

On Wednesday, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram and the Guardian of Britain both reported that Mr Hussein had placed his defence minister under house arrest in a move apparently designed to forestall a coup.

A successful coup, not necessarily by the defence minister, may well be the only way to avoid war.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator