The Center Holds -- for Now

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Backed further and further into a corner, Saddam Hussein has applied his energies to splintering the motley alliance of nations mustered against him. He attempted to paralyze some Western countries by making hostages of the foreign nationals caught in his grip. He sought to fragment his fellow Arabs by pitting the poor against the rich. He tried to crack the global economic sanctions imposed against him by making a hasty and generous peace with Iran. And he attempted to exploit anti-Americanism, always a potent force, by casting U.S. intervention in the gulf as a case of Yankee imperialism run amuck.

So far, Saddam's tactics have failed. Rather than unravel, the anti-Baghdad coalition knitted itself more tightly last week. After two weeks of sometimes intense dickering, the U.N. Security Council voted 13 to 0, with Yemen and Cuba abstaining, to authorize "such measures commensurate to the specific circumstances" to enforce the sanctions voted against Iraq four days after the invasion. At Soviet insistence, the phrase "minimum use of force" was dropped, but that is still what the new, vaguer language means. With five dissent-free votes condemning Iraq in three weeks, the Security Council has taken on surprising new life as an international policeman.

All week long, however, China and the Soviet Union, either of which could have vetoed the measure, resisted a precipitate decision. Beijing considered abstaining, because it likes to portray itself as a champion of the Third World against the superpowers and of the Arabs against Israel. Yet China wanted to support the West in order to help repair its image, shattered by last year's anti-democracy massacre in Beijing. In the end, China voted with the majority.

The Soviets were wary of a strictly military solution to the crisis, and considered that the U.S. was moving too far, too fast. The Kremlin has been / harshly critical of Baghdad. Gorbachev, who cut his August vacation short to deal with his country's economic problems, publicly lambasted Saddam's "perfidy and blatant violation of international law." What's more, Soviet officials reportedly gave visiting Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi a dressing down over the hostage affair. But Moscow is not keen to see a military solution -- which the U.S. would clearly dominate -- rule out a diplomatic one, for which the Soviets might be key. Aside from Hammadi, Moscow has played host to Saudi special envoy Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, and has dispatched diplomats to Iraq by way of Syria, Egypt, Libya and Jordan. The Soviets want to preserve their position as potential peacemaker, as well as their 30-year relationship with Iraq.

Moscow's hemming and hawing may also have been a plea for attention. There was a palpable sense of injured pride in Moscow when the U.S. ignored the Soviet view and launched its unilateral police action in the gulf. "The possibilities for joint action should have been given more consideration," said Soviet Middle East expert Igor Belyayev. Finally, however, the Soviets lost patience with Saddam. On Friday Gorbachev issued an ultimatum: Withdraw from Kuwait or face "additional measures" from the U.N. Since Saddam was clearly not giving in, the way was cleared for Soviet support of an international blockade.

The U.S. contention that force was necessary to make the sanctions stick gained credibility last week. According to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, Iraq was getting round the prohibitions to obtain military materiel as well as supplies used in the production of chemical weapons. Other Administration officials say the countries responsible include Libya, Yemen, Taiwan and South Africa. Yemen had earlier indicated that it would live up to its reluctant promise to abide by the embargo. It did allow one Iraqi tanker to unload at the port of Aden, but in response to international pressure it later refused to allow two others to discharge their cargo.

Meanwhile, Jordan continued to dither. Iraqi oil was still being trucked into the country in return for shipments of Jordanian goods. While King Hussein has said his country would abide by the sanctions, it has yet to comply. Jordan did close its borders briefly -- to refugees from the gulf. Its facilities have been overwhelmed by the 210,000 who have escaped so far; most of them remained in the country, with little food, water or money, because of - a shortage of outgoing boats and planes. After the U.S. and the European Community agreed to rush emergency food, medicine and clothes to the refugees, Amman relented, saying it would limit the influx to 20,000 people a day.

President Bush fared better on other fronts in his campaign to muster as much global support as possible. The major powers of Europe, in an unprecedented display of cohesion, voted collectively to send more warships to the trouble zone, a decision that will bring the strength of the international armada up to nearly 100 vessels. Iran repeated its pledge to abide by the trade embargo, belying predictions it would serve as a back door for Iraqi trade.

But how long will that line hold? Either of the obvious prospects for the future -- a prolonged standoff or the outbreak of war -- would be almost certain to unleash centrifugal forces on the fragile united front. "With stock markets crashing, higher oil costs, hostages in danger and voters calling for quick solutions, governments everywhere will be hard pressed to keep their nerve," says a NATO diplomat in Brussels. And that is to say nothing of the demoralizing effects of young people returning home maimed or zippered into body bags.

The unified march of Saddam's opponents has so far evoked awe around the globe, especially given the signs of fissure that emerged almost from the start. Many nations were simply uncertain how far military vs. diplomatic action should go. The fractures deepened when the U.S. rode out ahead of the posse by unilaterally declaring a blockade of Iraq. That, said most world powers, was a matter strictly for the U.N.

Soon enough, though, Saddam himself provided an antidote to dissent. By making the outrageous decision to confine foreigners trapped in Iraq and Kuwait to locations that would be likely to be targeted by an attacking force, Saddam drew the countries aligned against him closer together. "It's a losing policy," said British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. "It was designed to weaken European resolve. It has had the opposite effect." Hurd's boss was more outspoken. Saddam's attempt to "hide behind Western women and children" was "utterly repulsive," said Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Privately, Thatcher told aides she was determined "to bring that repulsive filth of a man down." Underscoring the global refusal to yield to Baghdad's bullying, 30 of the 66 countries with embassies in Kuwait defied Saddam's order last week to close their missions.

Saddam also tried to divide and conquer. At one stage, France appeared to be working behind the scenes on a deal for preferential treatment of its citizens trapped in Iraq, presumably in exchange for a promise to soften its opposition to Baghdad. Those reports sparked agitated muttering in other Western capitals, where France's past record of bargaining for hostages is all too well known. But Paris passionately denied that it was playing a "solo game." In any case, when 27 French nationals in Iraq were forcibly relocated to unknown sites, it became clear that no special deal was in the offing.

Then, in a startling about-face, President Francois Mitterrand came out firmly in support of blockading the renegade state, with or without the U.N.'s O.K. Mitterrand also announced that France would send a squadron of 180 paratroopers to the United Arab Emirates, making it the only Western country aside from the U.S. and Britain to commit troops on the ground.

France's reversal on the blockade controversy gave momentum to the British- American push for a U.N. endorsement of the interdiction effort, something both powers stressed they welcomed but did not need in order to go ahead with naval operations. More support came from the Western European Union (WEU), a security grouping of nine of NATO's 16 members. Last week they voted to increase Europe's military presence in the gulf region, and agreed to take "all necessary steps to comply with the embargo of Iraq." The same day E.C. foreign ministers unanimously adopted the identical position.

Until now, the European countries have hesitated to back Washington fully, even though they depend more on Middle East oil than the U.S. does. Last week's spurt of resolve came just in time to save continental governments from appearing totally pusillanimous not only in the eyes of Washington but also in European public opinion. In general, Europeans have been enormously supportive of the tough U.S. approach. Remarked an American diplomat in London: "It's a funny feeling, not having abuse heaped at you."

Saddam's truculent behavior even strengthened Arab opposition in some quarters. Syria, a longtime enemy of Saddam's, announced that it would dispatch additional troops to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain expanded existing U.S. basing rights, while Qatar granted them for the first time.

Like the U.S., Saddam's other opponents hope that Iraq can be forced out of Kuwait through economic strangulation. But for the noose to hold, that had better happen relatively quickly. Already, war jitters are convulsing world markets, wiping huge chunks off the value of U.S., Japanese and European stocks. The cost to the West of a protracted standoff would be inflated by the numerous aid commitments made last week to poorer Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt. As the price tag climbs, popular opposition to the anti- Saddam effort may multiply. Some petro-nations like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico have promised to buffer Western economies by pumping more oil, but the gyrating markets do not seem confident that that will help enough.

For the Arabs ranged alongside the West, a prolonged stalemate has an added pitfall: the inevitable rise in resentment over the presence of American troops. For now, the Saudis, Egyptians and others have made a virtue of necessity. But the domineering role of the West, inextricably linked with past Arab humiliations, is all too likely to arouse animosity over time.

Some political analysts believe the anti-Saddam league actually stands a better chance of surviving intact if hostilities break out, depending on how they get started. "A military exchange would strengthen solidarity because the hostages would be endangered, and this affects almost all Western countries," says Thomas Koszinowski, deputy head of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg. "But if the conflict is viewed as deliberately provoked not by Iraq but by the U.S., its Western partners would hold back." Of all the dangers to the coalition, the gravest might be a unilateral decision by the U.S. to initiate war in an impetuous way. To avoid that scenario, Bush must continue to be as solicitous as possible of allied opinion and try to seek a consensus, preferably through the U.N., before undertaking any major action.

Paradoxically, unity would also be imperiled by an unexpected peace. "What happens if Saddam is persuaded to pull out of Kuwait, yet retains his army, his ambitions and a good deal of resentment?" asks a senior European adviser at the WEU meeting in Paris. "Some countries may be tempted to say, 'We can all go home,' and pretend the crisis is over, while others will not want to leave the gulf until Saddam Hussein is neutralized."

Analysts in Europe's defense establishment argue that there can be no end to the current crisis until Saddam is overthrown and Iraq's military machine and , nascent nuclear program are dismantled. That could mean countenancing action in the gulf that goes way beyond the restoration of the status quo ante. "Once we start to contemplate that kind of action," says a NATO diplomat, "there will be a rush for the exit." Maybe. But perhaps by then, all those ranged against Saddam will see they have no other choice.