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STARING AT WAR : Bush Would Rather Fight Than Let Diplomacy Do Its Slow Work

January 13, 1991|George W. Ball | George W. Ball served as undersecretary of state from 1961-1966. His new book, "A Passionate Attachment," about U.S.-Israeli relations, will be published this year by Norton

PRINCETON, N.J. — In the meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz on Wednesday, Iraq did not agree to withdraw its forces from Kuwait or permit the restoration of Kuwait's "legitimate" government.

Aziz might have been more forthcoming if Baker had assured Saddam Hussein that--on a satisfactory conclusion of the crisis--the United States would ask the United Nations to arrange an international conference, covering a range of problems in the Middle East. These would include not only arms control but, specifically, the Palestinian question. Baker could have made it emphatically clear that the conference would not be tied, in any way, to the gulf crisis--which would have been settled through other channels.

The United States, Baker might have said, would represent to all the world that the conference was consistent with the traditional practice whereby major nations sweep up at the end of an epoch. In this case, the epoch of the Cold War, the end of the 20th Century and the end of the millennium.

I can offer no assurance as to what Aziz might have responded. But this would at least have provided Hussein with a graceful exit. He could say he had been assured that the issue all Arabs focused on--the Palestinian question--would at last be seriously examined. For the meeting would not only include the United States and Israel, but also representatives of the major arms-producing nations and the key Arab countries.

The meeting last week had no such reasoned and reasonable outcome. Instead, Iraq accused the United States of a double standard. America never objects, the Iraqi foreign minister insisted, to the usurpation of one country by its neighbor when the usurping country is Israel--but it vehemently denies it when that country is Iraq.

A review of the events that have brought us to our current peril may throw some light on that question. Within a week after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, President George Bush deployed troops in Saudi Arabia. The President defined their mission as limited to "defense and deterrence." He obtained from the U.N. Security Council a resolution authorizing a trade and financial embargo against Iraq. To enforce it, Bush created a multinational coalition, including European and Arab members.

Slowly, by steadily expanding his rhetoric, Bush enlarged U.S. objectives. Not merely must Iraq halt its aggression, the Hussein regime must be deprived of control of Iraq's huge army and its facilities for producing chemical, biological and, ultimately, nuclear weapons.

For several months, Bush seemed persuaded that the U.N. sanctions would bring Iraq to its senses. He stated as late as Oct. 1, "We're still giving sanctions the chance to be effective," adding, "I'm a little encouraged that perhaps they are having a strong effect." But even though many well-informed Americans testified the sanctions were indeed "having a strong effect," the President changed his mind and decided not to give them "the time to work, the time to be effective."

Bush instead decided Iraq's dictator could be made to change course only through fear. As a result, he adopted a stratagem used by Joshua, who defeated Jericho by marching priests around the city's perimeter for seven days, blowing rams horn trumpets until the walls fell.

But the walls of Baghdad did not fall at the blast of jet engines as Jericho's had at the wail of trumpets. Bush decided the massive forces deployed on Iraq's borders were not sufficiently terrifying. So, on Nov. 8, in an impulsive move following a meeting with his military advisers, Bush doubled the deployment of U.S. forces, adding units trained for combat offensive. The Pentagon had to cancel troop rotation, since the new deployments would so strip our nation's armed forces as to leave too few properly trained troops to replace them.

Bush did not seem to care that the Administration's scornful view of the sanctions' effectiveness contradicted the far more informed estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency, and even the opinions of two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two former defense secretaries and his own CIA director.

But should we go to war until we have fully tested the efficacy of our economic blockade? By abandoning primary reliance on sanctions, Bush almost certainly inflated the probable casualty rate if America initiates a war. Each day fighting is postponed, the blockade will eat away at Iraq's stock of military equipment, by denying its armed forces the importation of spare and replacement parts. In addition, responsible U.S. military leaders have predicted that, within three months, the absence of spare parts and trained technical advisers would require the Iraqi air force to curtail reconnaissance and training flights.

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