NEW YORK — The crisis over Kuwait marks a watershed for the Bush Administration. Success will boost world morale and the world economy. It will strengthen the President's domestic leadership. Failure will blight all future domestic and international efforts.
The Administration, so far, has risen to the challenge with subtlety, skill and fortitude. But the game has only begun. The President's dramatic decision to deploy a major military force in Saudi Arabia has raised not only the prospects of success but also the stakes of defeat. The United States has passed the point of no return.
It is thus crucial to assess how success and failure are to be defined. The U.N. Security Council has unanimously demanded the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the restoration of the legitimate government. The United States has justified its interdiction of the sea lanes as a response to a request of the exiled Kuwaiti government.
Should Iraq manage to remain in Kuwait or exercise indirect control through some puppet, the American show of force will turn into a debacle. If in the end Iraq controls Kuwait and U.S. forces stay in Saudi Arabia, the crisis will have ended in a demonstration of the irrelevance of America and of world opinion. In any event, neither Arab nor U.S. politics would long sustain significant troop deployments in Saudi Arabia.
The argument that we have saved Saudi Arabia will be overwhelmed by the perception of an American failure that would shake political, economic and financial stability everywhere. Indeed, even attainment of the U.N. objectives might provide only a breathing space if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains in office and he continues to build up its nuclear and chemical weapons potential.
Time is not on our side. If after a certain interval the conflict appears to settle down to a siege, the United States will be obliged to consider new measures to bring it to a conclusion.
The United States had three choices in dealing with the crisis: It could passively endorse whatever consensus emerged in the United Nations; it could support whatever the industrial democracies--all of which are more dependent on Mideast oil than the United States is--were prepared to do in concert; or it could take the lead in opposing Hussein and try to organize international support for an effort in which the United States would bear the principal burden.
There were ample excuses for avoiding a decision. The most fashionable argument was that the area's defense should be an Arab matter. But none of the Arab states is strong enough, even in combination, to defeat the Iraqi army. In any case, such an argument marks the re-emergence of American isolationism, especially among the conservatives. Allowed to prevail, it would conclude with America's abdication at the moment when the old East-West conflict has been won.
Another excuse was that even if Iraq controlled all the oil in the gulf, it would still have to sell it in a world market governed by the laws of supply and demand. But were Iraq to achieve its strategic design, it would be able to determine the level of supply by taking production away from sparsely populated principalities in the Arabian Peninsula without hurting its own population. The ability to cause a worldwide economic crisis is not the sort of power to be left in the hands of a ruler who has attacked three of his six neighbors, is engaged in mortal conflict with two others and has used poison gas against his own dissident population.
The Administration must have concluded that the first two options would almost certainly have ended with making Iraqi domination of Kuwait permanent. That would produce the collapse of the moderate governments in the region, including Egypt. Ultimately, a general Middle East war would have been probable.
Having committed the United States to a leadership role, President Bush made another crucial decision: He and his advisers opted for a massive deployment. In so doing, they seem to have reasoned that the United Nations' unexpected sanctions might change Hussein's calculation. He may well not have originally intended to seize the Saudi oil fields. Had there been no meaningful resistance, he would not have needed to do so. The rulers of the Arabian peninsula--in Saudi Arabia as well as in the emirates--would have yielded to Iraqi pressures or been overthrown, more likely both.
But once the sanctions were voted, Hussein's calculus was bound to change. So long as oil prices remain steady, the sanctions are likely to be sustained. And prices will remain at more or less present levels if Saudi Arabia increases its production by 2.5 million barrels. But if Saudi production can be destroyed or even severely reduced, the absence of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil--roughly 4.6 million barrels--will lead to an explosive rise in oil prices. With a worldwide depression looming, it would become increasingly difficult to maintain sanctions. Hussein would win the endurance contest.