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U.S. Has Crossed Its Mideast Rubicon--and Cannot Afford to Lose : Iraq: If sanctions prove too uncertain and diplomacy unavailing, America will need to consider a surgical and progressive military strike.

August 19, 1990|Henry A. Kissinger | Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger writes frequently for The Times

President Bush and his advisers must have concluded that once they committed military forces, the best hope of ending the crisis quickly was to assemble an overwhelming force to overawe such a threat and to be able to go further if necessary.

There is now widespread public support. The United Nations is nearly unanimous. NATO countries have sent naval and air contingents. An Arab multinational force is in place. The test, however, will not be the extent of the support but its durability. For that reason, this is a time for the Administration to calculate the window of opportunity it has available to achieve its objectives.

The Administration must take care not to wallow in the domestic and international support it now enjoys. Public concern about the probability of success, coupled with insistent reassurances by Administration spokesmen, will, over time, weaken the credibility of the American enterprise. At some point, the familiar question of the light at the end of the tunnel is bound to surface.

The situation within the Middle East is also likely to grow more precarious the longer the crisis festers. The impact on the Arab world of anti-Western propaganda from Baghdad and the skillful linking of Kuwait and Palestine must not be underestimated. The region is now polarized as never before; radicalism is on the rise. A coup in one of the emirates or sabotage in the oil fields would send another shock through the region. It would upset the already precarious balance between supply and demand in the world oil markets, driving up oil prices, causing unemployment and inflation and risking the solidarity backing the sanctions. The refusal of France to permit its navy to participate in the sea interdiction may be a foretaste.

Thus, the time required for the sanctions to work must be balanced against the factors undermining international cohesion. The acid test of the sanctions will be not how much oil is prevented from leaving the region but how few supplies are allowed to enter Iraq. Iraqi oil exports are relatively easily blocked. But Iraq's frontiers are long and less bulky goods--food--can seep in. And the likelihood of this happening will grow the longer the crisis lasts and the more Iraq's neighbors conclude that they may have to live with the Iraqi dictator, however dangerous he may be.

I do not know whether sanctions can work within the time constraints outlined here. I also realize that the United States must consider the risk that a more aggressive course might take away some of the current international support. At the same time, that support would not survive the appearance of an American defeat. The United States stands to lose the most from a long siege--whatever the relative immediate economic impact on Europe and Japan. An ignominious withdrawal following the debacle in Lebanon--and any withdrawal however dressed up without achieving our objectives would be ignominious--would end America's stabilizing role in the Middle East. And no other country could take its place. It would also undermine the single most important asset left in America's relations with Europe and Japan--America's contribution to the security of its allies. It would gravely weaken the Bush Administration's capacity to overcome the economic crisis that would follow.

It would be a mistake to focus only on America's difficulties. In the end, Iraq is a heavily indebted developing country with a population of only 16 million that has just ended a debilitating 10-year war with Iran, and which has hostile relations with four of its six neighbors. It is in no position to enter into a protracted conflict with the United States. Saddam Hussein proved during the Iran war that he is prepared to negotiate when necessary. His most recent offer agreed to the principle of withdrawal from Kuwait, albeit under outrageous conditions. It may be the beginning of an attempt at negotiation obscured by bluster once the reality of the stark choices before Iraq sinks in. Then the offer to withdraw may reemerge stripped of its absurd baggage.

But the United States cannot afford to be diddled; it simply cannot afford to lose. If sanctions prove too uncertain and diplomacy unavailing, the United States will need to consider a surgical and progressive destruction of Iraq's military assets--especially since an outcome that leaves Hussein in place and his military machine unimpaired might turn out to be only an interlude between aggressions.

It would be irresponsible for an outsider to press for a course of action in a situation so dependent on information not available to the kibitzer. But it is important to understand that America has crossed its Rubicon. All those concerned with global peace and world economic well-being should subordinate whatever tactical misgivings they may have to standing behind the only policy that can now succeed.

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