Must This Mean War?

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If peace was at hand anywhere last week, it was on another planet. None of the actions and words of Saddam Hussein and those who would stop him were the least bit subtle, and all pointed toward war. The verbal posturing of two ! weeks ago gave way to bullying; defensive deployments took on an offensive cast; compromise was shunned as if it were a four-letter word; those in the know saw no hope.

In Baghdad, Saddam's smooth, low-key Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, complained that the U.S. was ignoring his nation's peace proposals. On Saturday, the Iraqi government declared that the embargo against it was "an act of war." And from the only person who counts in Iraq, nothing was heard but bellicosity. Dare to fight us, Saddam told the U.S., and you will have "thousands of Americans shrouded in sad coffins." The escalating rhetoric was accompanied by belligerent deeds. Iraq's troop presence in Kuwait increased to 160,000, and Iraq demanded that American and British citizens congregate in two Kuwait City hotels. "Temporary, precautionary measures," said Baghdad; a "grave and sinister development," said the British Foreign Office more accurately.

In Baghdad itself, Iraqis demonstrated outside the American embassy for the first time since the crisis began; the speaker of the parliament announced that Iraq would "play host" to the citizens of "aggressive nations," including the U.S., by dispersing them to military installations until the threat of war passes; and potential for terrorism was heightened when Abul Abbas, the Achille Lauro mastermind, called for his army of thugs to "hit American interests."

On top of all that, Saddam suddenly ended Iraq's state of war with Iran, a stroke that apparently caught the U.S. intelligence community off guard. "An exceedingly clever move," said Richard Helms, a former CIA director and U.S. ambassador to Iran. "Iraq and Iran have much in common: hatred of the U.S., hatred of Saudi Arabia and a desire to drive up oil prices." Peace with Iran frees Baghdad to move more Iraqi divisions to the Kuwaiti front, and although Tehran says it will continue supporting the sanctions mandated by the United Nations, it is possible that Iran could soon serve as a back door through which the embargo could be breached.

Meanwhile, in a frosty two-hour session with President Bush last Thursday, Jordan's King Hussein sought to calm matters. If anything significant was accomplished, it remains a state secret. With street support for Saddam growing and with Jordan deriving 40% of its GNP from trade with Iraq, Hussein sought compensation for the revenue Amman will lose if it closes its port of Aqaba to Iraq-destined commerce. Not until you're actively on board the $ embargo, Bush told Hussein, while making it clear that the U.S. Navy will close Aqaba if the King dallies.

In separate press conferences following their meeting, both Bush and Hussein appeared sullen, and Washington's own words and actions mirrored the pessimism. More troops, more planes, more ships; the largest overseas deployment since Vietnam, so large that a reserve forces call-up and the use of civilian aircraft to ferry it all were authorized last Friday. "Stop and search" became the fleet's new orders -- an action criticized by even Canada and France for running ahead of the U.N. Security Council. The very next day, U.S. naval forces fired warning shots at two Iraqi oil tankers after they refused to stop.

Like Saddam's, the President's rhetoric matched his actions. In a stinging Pentagon pep talk, aggressive and uncompromising in tone, Bush called Saddam a liar and declared that nothing less than "our way of life" is at stake in the gulf.

No one should "doubt our staying power," said the President, but that seems to be exactly what is worrying Administration officials. "If a stalemate is the best that we have six months from now," says a Bush adviser, "and gasoline prices have leveled off because the Saudis have made up the lost production from Iraq and Kuwait, why wouldn't the American people begin to wonder why we're still there? The embargo will inevitably leak, and the hostility of average Arabs toward us will likely grow. The long haul may squeeze Saddam, but it is not exactly favorable to us."

If war does not follow this analysis, it certainly becomes more likely. The U.S. can win a test of strength against Saddam, but a test of wills is another matter. So the inside, macho talk is all about unconditional surrender and a quick, low-cost air strike to decapitate Iraq's war-fighting capacity, if not Saddam himself. While the U.S. would welcome a pretext for action, any American move that is construed as needlessly provocative could cause domestic and international support to erode rapidly. Bush and his aides believe that Saddam will not budge until his food and supplies begin to run out. They then expect him to lash out militarily, probably against Saudi Arabia, but possibly against Jordanian, Israeli, Turkish or U.S. forces. The President and his commanders are confident that they can blunt this strike, forcing Saddam to retreat from Kuwait. Such a humiliation, they hope, will hasten his overthrow or, at the least, teach him a lesson.

. If there is a political scenario for a peaceful resolution, no one is talking about it. "We are under a gag order," says an Administration official who believes there can be no successful resolution as long as Saddam remains in power. "But if you want to understand the prevailing thinking, you might consider Joe Sisco's observation." Sisco, an Under Secretary of State in the Carter Administration, said last week that it is "difficult to teach dictators lessons. They need to be defeated."

This notion that the world cannot sleep easily until Saddam is overthrown is "madness," says Robert Tucker, a highly regarded Middle East expert at Johns Hopkins University. In 1975 Tucker triggered a debate over the merits of a permanent U.S. presence in the gulf, a force that would guarantee the steady flow of oil at a reasonable price. Henry Kissinger hinted agreement, and the idea was seriously considered by the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. It was rejected because it would have had to be imposed over Arab objections, but such may not be the case today.

Tucker urges a negotiated solution to the present crisis. "For one thing," he says, "suppose we get rid of Saddam. Who is his successor? Israeli intelligence says the younger generals around him would be just as bad, including in their future threat a nuclear-war option. And to break Iraq's power might require much more than merely overthrowing Saddam, like maybe an occupation. Nice idea, but risky . . . The idea that we can't compromise the current situation is as nonsensical as it is dangerous." By week's end a host of other Middle East experts were beginning to call for a de-escalation of the rhetoric, and brainstorming sessions designed to craft a way out short of war were under way in the nation's think tanks.

What kind of deal would best serve both the region's and the world's interests? A negotiated resolution specific to the current mess is easy enough to conjure. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sketched one element last week: a retreat to Iraq by Saddam in exchange for satisfying his grievances against Kuwait, which largely involve that nation's drilling and oil production practices.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, distinguishes between securing the oil supply, a clear American responsibility, and expelling Iraq from Kuwait, a task he sees as more properly an international one, the implication being that such a goal is not worth a costly unilateral ! American military push. And although rhetoric has almost hopelessly blurred the distinctions, there is also a big difference between forcing Saddam out of Iraq and compelling him to abandon Kuwait.

The trouble with all narrow scenarios is that Saddam has proved he cannot be trusted -- although Mubarak believes optimistically that if he can be persuaded to leave Kuwait, Saddam would not be foolish enough to ignore that "good lesson" and would thereafter curb his messianic designs. Is it not more likely that Saddam would see his aggression as having paid handsome dividends and that he would regroup to strike again later?

The only resolution that could comfortably countenance Saddam's continued rule in Baghdad must simultaneously cripple or otherwise control his existing chemical weapons and his potential nuclear ones. To force that stand-down without a fight would involve a far more ambitious deal, a grand, region-wide peace plan. Any such negotiated resolution would have to address numerous concerns and defuse them satisfactorily:

FOREIGNERS. No compromise here. Americans and all other foreigners resident in Kuwait and Iraq must be free to leave or stay as they wish.

KUWAIT. Iraq's occupation is unacceptable to everyone, forever. The goal should be what Bush has stated all along: a complete Iraqi retreat and restoration of the al-Sabah monarchy. Free elections would be nice, and the U.S. could support Saddam's demand that they be held, but only after the Emir is returned. Still, the Saudi royal family is not eager to face its subjects at the polls, and would undoubtedly see the call for a Kuwaiti plebiscite as a precursor to elections in Saudi Arabia.

Saddam's complaint about Kuwait's slant drilling into Iraqi oil fields is legitimate. A payment to Baghdad for past deprivation and a guarantee of a more equitable distribution of oil resources in the future is both doable and just. Saddam's other gripes involve territorial disputes, and should be decided by the World Court.

SAUDI ARABIA AND OIL. As long as Saddam rules Iraq, Saudi Arabia will feel threatened, and the free flow of reasonably priced oil will be in jeopardy. To defend both, the U.S. -- with or without international assistance -- should consider establishing a permanent presence in the kingdom, as Robert Tucker envisioned 15 years ago. A trip-wire force of, say, 25,000 troops would do. Senior Saudi officials have expressed a willingness to accept such an open- ended commitment. In large measure, the bill for such an operation should be borne by the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and also by Europe and Japan, whose dependence on Middle Eastern oil dwarfs America's.

ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS. A permanent U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia would offend much of the Arab world. Washington would be bashed for establishing a colonial protectorate. The U.S. could either ignore such a reaction or seek to alleviate it by attempting to settle the outstanding item on the Arab agenda, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. No equation of Israel's occupation of the West Bank with Iraq's of Kuwait should be stated or implied, for none is justified: Israel's move into the West Bank was a response to the gratuitous aggression of King Hussein in 1967. Which is not to say the Palestinians' grievances are not real and legitimate. They will have to be seriously addressed at some point, and this might be the time to do so. If nothing else, the present crisis teaches that Israel and most of its Arab neighbors share a dedication to Middle East stability and a common fear of radical regimes.

If there simply is no way for the Palestinian problem to be resolved now without handing Saddam a victory he does not deserve, then the effort should be postponed. But whenever it comes, a settlement should involve the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state in some, but not all, of the West Bank. To assuage Israeli fears, the U.S. should announce that an attack on Israel will be considered an attack on the U.S. Stationing a second trip-wire force of troops along the Israel-Palestine border would add muscle to that pledge. The Arab states -- or most of them, and certainly those that border Israel -- should sign peace treaties with Jerusalem.

Israel, or at least its present hard-line government, would surely resist, which is putting it mildly. Yitzhak Shamir sees Yasser Arafat's support of Saddam as reducing Washington's ardor for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement -- an accurate short-term appraisal, but nothing more. It is certain that after the crisis abates, the moderate Arabs who are currently standing with the U.S. against Saddam will ask Washington to turn the resolve it has demonstrated in the gulf toward settling the Palestinian issue -- and the Bush Administration should respond sympathetically.

Israelis across the ideological spectrum recoil at linking the Saddam and Palestinian problems -- if only because Saddam himself has posited such a linkage. But doing so could provide the cover necessary for Saddam to scuttle the most terrifying weapons in his arsenal. Eager to save face, he could claim that a Palestinian settlement would have been impossible without his actions, a stance that could yield a rationale for destroying Iraq's chemical- and nuclear-weapons capabilities. No serious outsider would buy such an argument, but only Saddam's citizens would have to. Would Saddam grasp such a trade-off even if he were universally hailed as the man who created Palestine? "The Israelis are the biggest evil on earth," says Mohammed al-Mashat, Iraq's ambassador to the U.S. "Not even Hitler committed such atrocities. Hitler did not raze the houses of people for throwing stones." Hitler, of course, did a lot worse. Al-Mashat's fury telegraphs an implacable hostility toward Israel, a hate that might not be sated until all of Israel is eradicated. This piece of a grand plan would obviously be the hardest to orchestrate.

THE MILITARY BALANCE. Further negotiations should be undertaken to reduce the armed forces of all countries in the region, much like the talks in Central America, another area bristling with outsize armies. The best way to reduce the likelihood of adventurism is to restrict the military might available to those who want to war.

THE SOVIETS. While supportive now, Moscow might in the future be tempted to meddle in the Middle East again. The Soviets should be enlisted as co- guarantors of an overall settlement. One minor but nonetheless significant way to tie Gorbachev to the effort would be to have Moscow deliver the world's demands to Iraq -- and, of course, the few contemplated concessions as well. In addition, the Soviets should be pressed to join actively a multinational gulf naval patrol, and as with Syria, Moscow could declare that its shipments of spare military parts to Baghdad will henceforth be limited to "reasonable defensive sufficiency."

A grand deal could offer Bush important political gains. If the White House truly considers America's "staying power" problematic, a wider plan could add heft to the U.S. mission and help secure continued public support. A stable oil system would stave off the encroachment of drilling into environmentally important areas of the U.S. (which would be good), lessen the need for energy conservation (which would be bad) and possibly permit enactment of an energy tax to help reduce the deficit (also good).

Unrealistic, unworkable, naive? Perhaps. Time consuming to arrange? Definitely. Not comprehensive? Of course. If Iraq were to dismantle its chemical-and nuclear-weapons capacity, the Arab states would surely demand that Israel follow suit. Syria would balk at any proposal that left the Golan Heights in Jerusalem's hands. And so on. Whole armored divisions could be driven through the holes and loopholes in such a grand scheme.

But the alternative is war. Casualties would be high; hostages would be taken -- and perhaps killed; international terrorism would soar; Israel would inevitably be drawn into the conflict, thus further fueling Arab enmity against the West; the use of chemical weapons by a desperate Saddam could provoke a tactical nuclear response; the oil flow would probably be disrupted; and the Arab world's other undemocratic states (all of them) would be ripe for destabilization. Above all, unless Saddam does something so brash that everyone urges war, the U.S. will again find itself alone, and the major triumph of events so far, a U.S-Arab alliance against Iraq, will be shattered.

In Chinese, the word for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. Meeting the danger is a given: if war comes, the U.S. will prevail militarily, but only after a tremendous expenditure of lives and treasure. Seizing the opportunity to stabilize a region vital to the whole world's interests without resort to war could be considered a calling. If war breaks out without a full-fledged discussion of outcomes short of war, then even total military victory will be a tragedy, and the long-term prospects for peace in the Middle East will worsen.