The crisis following upon Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is unique in the contemporary world, above all because of the multiple levels upon which it is being played out. In international terms, it is comparable to the major crises of the post-1945 period—Berlin 1948, Korea 1950, Suez 1956, Cuba 1962, the Arab–Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Yet it is distinct from, and more complex than, any of these. It is distinct because this crisis does not assume an East–West form, one of Soviet–American antagonism, and has in fact involved a significant degree of Soviet–American cooperation, if not complete agreement. It is more complex because in addition to its world dimension it has several other ones: it has provoked a crisis within the Arab world, between the bloc led by Iraq and that led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt; it involves to a degree never seen in modern times all three of the non-Arab states in the Middle East—Iran, Turkey, Israel; it is a crisis within the us alliance, over the degree of military and financial support being given to the usa in the Gulf; it is also a crisis of the international economic system, given the importance of oil and the inflationary pressures which higher oil prices and increased military expenditures in the developed capitalist states have brought; finally, it is a crisis of the global political system, as reflected in the question of whether the United Nations can, or cannot, act to prevent evident breaches of its Charter.

For the Arab world, in particular, this crisis marks a decisive moment, however the confrontation between Iraq and the West resolves itself. The Arab states have divided strongly in the past, as after the 1962 revolution in Yemen, and Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. But this division gives the appearance of being deeper than any previous one: the invitation to Western armies by Saudi Arabia, and the alliance of several Arab states against Iraq, promises to strengthen the disunity of the Arab world. At the same time, the Iraqi action against Kuwait poses more clearly than at any time for nearly thirty years the question of Arab unity and of the unity of Arab politics in general. Iraq has captured Kuwait in the name of Arab unity, and no Arab state can be neutral or indifferent to this crisis.

This re-posing of the issue of the unity of the Arab world is evident in two respects. First, Saddam Hussein has revived the dynamic of secular Arab nationalism, with at its core the goals of Arab political unity and the redistribution of Arab oil wealth. For twenty years or more it has been widely assumed that this political programme, which Nasser promoted in the 1950s and early 1960s, has failed: its defeat was sealed in the defeat of 1967. Since the Iranian revolution it appeared that the initiative throughout the Middle East, including the Arab world, was in the hands of Islamist forces: they were the ones challenging imperialism, attacking established regimes, calling for the distribution of wealth, organizing the oppressed. Now the initiative has been retaken by the secular nationalists. Of course, Saddam uses Islamic language and poses as the champion of Islam. But everyone knows this is appearance only, a political camouflage. Saddam has been militantly opposed to Islamist politics within Iraq and outside. What he has effectively done by his action on 2 August is to steal their clothes and regain the leadership of radical politics in the region. This is one reason why Iran is so worried—it has lost the radical leadership.

The issue of unity is posed in a second respect, namely that of frontiers. One of the distinctive features of the Middle East as a whole—Arab and non-Arab—is the degree to which frontiers are regarded as irrelevant. Arab nationalists say the frontiers of the region are temporary and artificial creations. This is of course true, in that most of the boundaries were created by administrative decision, and usually under colonial rule, in the early part of this century. But in itself this is not specific to the Middle East: most of the frontiers in Europe and Africa are equally arbitrary and equally recent. What is at stake is not the issue of boundary definition—where geographically the frontier lies—but rather the question of whether the delimitation of states should be respected at all. What is distinctive about the Middle East, then, is the refusal of states to accept this delimitation. Interference in the internal affairs of other states is more pervasive in the region than anywhere else. Indeed, it follows from the logic of Arab nationalism that frontiers merely divide a political community that should be united.

This argument has been heard many times before: in the union of Syria and Egypt in 1958; in the various Libyan attempts at union; in the Syrian claim that it has a right to intervene in Lebanon; in the—ultimately successful—drive for Yemeni unity. What Saddam has done is to restate this case in a singularly stark way. Yet his ability to do so probably results from another more immediate trend, namely the questioning of frontiers in the aftermath of cold war. When the Communist regimes fell in Eastern Europe last year, lessons were quickly drawn: it was widely believed that dictatorships in the Middle East would also be vulnerable—and in particular Iraq. Many thought Saddam would share the fate of Ceausescu. But the fall of Communism had another consequence, one that will take much longer to work itself through: namely, the revision on an international scale of frontiers for the first time since the end of World War II. Everyone knew that the division of the world into the existing system of 170 states was arbitrary, but since 1945 it has more or less been accepted. Until this year, there had been only one case of successful secession—Bangladesh in 1971—and only one of fusion—Vietnam in 1975.