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Ultimatums Are Usually a Step To War, But Now Peace Seems Closer : Diplomacy: Western nations traditionally use ultimatums as a prelude to war, but the Bush Administration now seems to be aiming for peace.

December 09, 1990|George W. Ball | George W. Ball served as under secretary of state from 1961 to 1966. His new book, "A Passionate Attachment," about U.S.-Israeli relations, will be published next year by Norton

PRINCETON, N.J. — After Iraq swallowed Kuwait, the Bush Administration persuaded the U.N. Security Council to adopt resolutions condemning Iraq's invasion, demanding its unconditional withdrawal, calling for economic sanctions and directing the prompt return of all hostages. At the same time, responding to Saudi Arabia's pleas, it deployed a large number of troops for, as President Bush stated, "defense and deterrence."

But then Bush changed course. He doubled the number of the roughly 200,000 personnel deployed, to add forces trained for offensive operations.

Bush explained that the change was required to scare Saddam Hussein into compliance. But he soon discovered he was also scaring the American people. Americans increasingly worried that Bush might launch an offensive before fully testing the blockade's efficacy, which was already noticeably eroding the Iraqi economy.

That concern mounted on Nov. 28, when America arranged for the U.N. Security Council to approve a resolution providing that if, by Jan. 15, Iraq had not complied with all prior resolutions, the member states might use military force.

By now, Americans were not only scared but puzzled. Was the ultimatum prompted by the hope that America might induce the Iraqis to respond affirmatively, or was it--as has often been the case--designed as a ritual prelude to war?

Ultimatums are a decidedly "non-Arab" procedure. The Arab peoples do not like irrevocable decisions that may lead to violence. There is an old Middle Eastern saying that if an Arab should ever cross the Rubicon, he would pick up the Rubicon and take it so that he could cross and recross it, as events evolved.

In sharp contrast with Arab tradition, Western nations have a long history of using the ultimatum as an irrevocable step toward war. Thus, in 1914, Austria served an ultimatum on Serbia, and in 1939, France and Britain delivered an ultimatum to Germany. Later, in 1956, Britain and France gave Gamal Abdel Nasser an ultimatum--after they had begun their abortive Suez adventure.

But if the future of Bush's ultimatum is murky, it is clear that if the United States attacks Iraq, our sons and daughters will bear the brunt of the struggle--and take most of the casualties. With the honorable exceptions of Britain, France and Canada, most nations in our jerry-built coalition will cheer while Americans fight.

Yet if most of the coalition is counting on Americans to wage a fierce war, the American people are by no means eager for the fray. Though some indulge the illusion that the United States can use its superior air power to win a quick, relatively cheap war, my experience as a director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in 1944-45, and America's experience in the Korean and Vietnam wars, taught me air power does not win wars. Nor should any rational American assume the Iraqis would meekly permit superior U.S. air power to bomb their arms-producing facilities. They would retaliate.

Thus, more and more Americans are convinced the United States should not rush into war without first testing the efficacy of the current economic blockade--which is already having serious effects. As former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger testified before Congress, for example, Iraq's civilian production has declined by some 40%, while Iraq's foreign-exchange earnings have been almost entirely blocked.

But advocates of immediate war protest that the blockade may not prove its effectiveness in less than a year. They argue the United States cannot sustain nearly a half-million troops in the desert for that long.

That, however, is no rational basis for immediate action--merely an illustration of the stupidity of U.S. overdeployment. We should not let past errors stampede us into rash action. This is the opinion of two distinguished former chiefs of staff--Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., who was chief of Naval Operations, and Gen. David C. Jones, former chief of the U.S. Air Forces. It is affirmed by two former secretaries of defense, Schlesinger and Robert S. McNamara. Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf himself in the gulf, who will bear command responsibility, has expressed eloquent doubts that a war can be fought without massive U.S. casualties.

To placate this growing skepticism, Bush has felt driven to make a formal show that he is exhausting the diplomatic option. He is sending Secretary of State James A. Baker III to discuss the matter with Hussein and has invited the Iraqi foreign minister to come to Washington.

Is serious progress likely to come from this? One might instinctively say no, but the Administration seems at long last to have decided to return to its earlier definition of war aims. Under these, the Iraqis need only release all hostages, which they have now vowed to do, withdraw from Kuwait and permit its legitimate government to be restored.

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