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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Isolated Over Gulf




U.S. President Bill Clinton turned out to be in a rather complex situation. A huge propaganda campaign against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was launched and many military divisions were sent to the Persian Gulf. But it soon became clear that not only was there no common international support for military strikes, but the American public was against such moves. The United States, in this instance, proved to be not a leader of the world community but, on the contrary, close to international isolation. When the United States sensed this, it backed off. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to Baghdad not to help Saddam save face at the urging of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but to help the United States save face at the urging of the Americans. Military actions were put off not because Saddam gave in, but because the idea of strikes did not get support either from world or the American public.


Bombing Iraq would be unlikely to succeed in any case. Saddam clearly would not only hold on to power, but strengthen it both in Iraq and throughout the Arab world. The scenario of breaking up Iraq is unrealistic. First, in order to do so, troops would have to occupy the country, which would mean many casualties. This would be entirely unacceptable to the American public. Moreover, the division of Iraq would lead to the formation of something like an independent Kurdish state, which would mean long-term destabilization of the whole region and, above all, of Turkey, the United States' main supporter in the region.


Americans have already understood that they should not fight Iraq just now. But they still haven't understood that they are now in a fundamentally different situation. Most countries declined to support the United States not because they considered Saddam to be right, but because they didn't agree with the continued status of the United States as the world's sole superpower. Therefore, the unified Western coalition that was formed in 1991 no longer exists. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with U.S. hegemony is growing everywhere.


The heads of Francophone states recently held a meeting in Hanoi at which one of the main themes was the need to formulate alternatives to the general process of Americanization. This January, I participated in a conference in the German city of Kassel. In this quiet university town, far from journalists, representatives of the intellectual elite from Russia and Germany gathered to discuss the role of Russia on the threshold of the 21st century. Quite unexpectedly, one of the main topics of discussion was the need to counter U.S. hegemony in Europe. Even more unexpected was that the tone was set not by the Russians, but the Germans.


Unlike in 1991, in 1998 the United States had the total support of Britain only. France, Germany, China and many other countries not only did not hurry to send their troops to the Persian Gulf but, it seems, expected with a certain degree of schadenfreude that the United States would come to grief over Saddam.


Just a few days ago, the Americans were instructing the Russian elite on how to behave in the Iraq crisis. They told Russia that it shouldn't thwart their efforts, that it would lead to its isolation, withdrawal of American money from the stock market and a widespread financial crisis in the country. But it was the United States, not Russia, that turned out to be isolated.


By insisting on only a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Russia not only did not isolate itself from the world community but, on the contrary, publicly expressed what many other countries were quietly thinking. Thus, for the first time in the past few years, Russian diplomacy, despite its weakness, was able to make Russia an informal leader of a coalition. It does not matter that this coalition can be called a "silent coalition." What matters is that it has already been formed. The main idea of the coalition, which has been motivating Russian diplomacy during the past several years, is that of a multipolar world.


It is not that the Americans did not have enough force to punish Iraq, but that they were unable to create a coalition that would have enough political will for a military solution to the problem. Many countries told the Americans that, instead of a bipolar world, there should be not monopolarity, but multipolarity. U.S. foreign policy strategy ideologists, who have been distracted by realpolitik conceptions and geopolitical schemes and intoxicated by their own strength, did not believe them for a long time. The sobering cold shower of the biggest foreign policy fiasco of the recent past may force them to believe.


Just as the Iraq crisis of 1991 marked the collapse of the bipolar world and transition to a monopolar one, the Iraq crisis of 1998 marked the collapse of a monopolar world.


Whether this benefits Russia is a separate question. Despite Russia's insistence on the idea of moving to a multipolar world, this question should not be considered resolved. Russian foreign policy makers are not without their own faults. That Soviet Russia attained the height of its influence during the years when the United States was a superpower still holds true. As a consequence of this, it has held on to a rather high status as the main partner of the superpower. It is precisely this status that was strengthened during Russia's negotiations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A multipolar world would benefit Russia to the extent that the United States would not have the status that Russia lost even earlier. But would Russia lose more if the United States, Russia's traditional counterpart, ceased being a superpower?


Sergei Markov is director of the Institute for Political Research in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.