NEW YORK — Rashid Khalidi, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, spoke for many of his deeply concerned colleagues last Sunday when he shared his fear that the United States is proceeding, "half-blind," toward a war in the Persian Gulf. His audience of more than 1,500 teachers and specialists was assembled--not far from the Alamo in San Antonio, Tex.--for the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Assn.
Guild rules require the specialists to grumble frequently about policy-makers in Washington who do not seek--and may even spurn--their advice. This time, the complaints were often coupled with general astonishment that President Bush seems to have no one on his top decision-making team who knows very much about the Arab world. Citing the potential backlash from the region and the dangers involved in upsetting its balance of power, Khalidi roused his audience by insisting that the specialists exert themselves to overcome the pro-war "idiots' consensus" in the press.
But Khalidi faces a dilemma, one not unlike that bedeviling the President and his policy-makers: Despite anxiety about war, the professor believes that Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait must be reversed. Which prompted a scholar from Kuwait to stand and ask the unavoidable question: How do you propose to get Iraq out of Kuwait?
What's needed are military measures that, by spotlighting Iraqi weaknesses, force Saddam Hussein to confront the cost of launching an attack on allied forces, while simultaneously weakening his grip on Kuwait. The point is to design steps that will withhold force as long as Iraq complies, and to make compliance an overwhelmingly obvious choice. In contrast to the war option, steps of this sort are likely to be widely supported in the international community and in the U.N. Security Council.
Creative ideas about the calibrated use of military power against Iraq have been offered. For example, the United States and its allies should, at the request of the legitimate Kuwait government, protect Kuwaiti airspace from Iraqi intruders. Given the availability of highly sophisticated battlefield technology like AWACS, the allies could police Kuwaiti airspace with minimal exposure of friendly aircraft.
Most important, this airspace option illustrates how the logic of the crisis--yield or be attacked--can usefully be changed to increase pressure on Iraq.
For a few exciting weeks in August and September, it was easy to bask in the warm glow of a new international order and marvel at the rejuvenation of the United Nations. But reality has a way of chilling hopes. It will be six months or more before the embargo ordered by the U.N. Security Council really begins to cause pain in Iraq, and time can be a fickle ally of such efforts.
The President has emphasized that his decision to bolster U.S. forces in the gulf by 200,000 soldiers is intended to leave no doubt in Hussein's mind that his demand for unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait is deadly serious. Unmistakably, the military posture of U.S. forces is rapidly moving toward an offensive capability.
But by making the threat of war more credible, the President has dramatically stoked the fear of war. Ironically, the new deployment will likely increase pressure on Washington to accept a compromise solution rather than push the war button.
Time is a crucial dimension in the crisis, but only afterward will it be clear whether the U.S. decision to send more troops to the gulf put time to work for or against Hussein. The Iraqi leader has apparently calculated, not without good reason, that he might outlast the United States and its allies.
By accelerating the clock and assembling what--by almost any conceivable standard--is a truly remarkable fighting force, the United States has raised what soldiers like to call the "pucker factor" for Hussein. But--and here the dilemma thickens for Washington--these substantive and psychological gains are unavoidably offset by a narrowing of options in concert with the allies.
The ad-hoc coalition of forces in the gulf, now numbering more than 300,000, may remain intact only as long as it is not called to action. As the United States strides boldly to the brink of war--what would be the first Arab-American war--its allies, for the most part, are content to march in place.