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Regional Outlook : When the Masks Come Off Will the Coalition Hold? : After the guns fall silent, the lessons of history show that wartime alliances often fall apart.

January 22, 1991|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Once the shooting in the Middle East stops, the postwar diplomacy will begin. And in the process, the multinational coalition with which the United States is now allied in fighting Iraq will almost inevitably erode or fall apart.

That, at least, is the lesson of history--the history of the two other instances in which the United States has fought and won a war as part of a genuine multinational coalition.

After World War I, an unhappy American President Woodrow Wilson and leaders of the victorious European powers bickered with one another over maps of the world at the peace conference in Versailles.

Following World War II, the United States sparred with Britain and France over their efforts to preserve colonial empires. It fell out with Nationalist China because of American unhappiness with Chiang Kai-shek's domestic policies. And, of course, it entered into a Cold War with the Soviet Union that lasted more than four decades.

After Americans die in battle, it seems, the United States tends to press hard for lasting solutions that could prevent further wars--even at the risk of alienating its wartime allies.

And sentiments in this country will be just the same after the war against Iraq.

"Because American blood is going to be spilled in this conflict, we will have the justification, the incentive, the interest and the opportunity to tell the parties in the region, and I mean all of them, 'Guys, it's time to settle your differences,' " says Martin Indyk, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Last week, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger argued that the defanging of Iraq by the United States will mean that "we've gained ourselves five years for constructive diplomacy" in the Mideast.

Others are not nearly so optimistic as Kissinger. Even after winning the war, "there's no guarantee that we'll be better off," says Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Critics say that the postwar era in the Middle East could witness new political instability, an upsurge of anti-Americanism, a wave of terrorist attacks and the need for a long-term American military commitments in the Persian Gulf.

What are the issues American postwar diplomacy will have to address?

Mideast specialists list five separate postwar problems. Settling each one could bring the United States into diplomatic conflict with one or more of its coalition partners in the current war. (The Bush Administration has already been concerned that the coalition might fall apart even during the war because of the possibility of Israeli involvement in the military campaign.)

Some of the postwar problems could also lead to controversy in American domestic politics.

Here are the five:

A Balance of Military Power

If Iraq is defeated, then other countries in the Middle East may try to fill the power vacuum Saddam Hussein leaves behind. Syria and Iran are the most frequently-mentioned candidates, but some experts also worry about other countries, such as Turkey.

Ultimately, in order to preserve the peace, some kind of international security force may have to be set up. But a number of U.S. officials and experts say either with or without such a force, American troops will have to be kept in the Persian Gulf for the foreseeable future. "I would expect a fairly sizable American contingent as part of (a) security regime in the Middle East for the indefinite future," predicts Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who plans to open congressional hearings next week on the postwar problems the United States will face. ". . . We would hope and expect that the countries of the region would furnish most of the defense effort, including personnel, but I would think an American role would be necessary. . . ."

However, a continuing American presence could cause political difficulties for friendly governments like Saudi Arabia. And it is almost certain to be opposed by at least some governments in the region, such as Syria and Iran.

"We strongly believe that the presence of outside forces in the region in the long term would destabilize the region," Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, said last week.

Moreover, a long-term American military presence in the Persian Gulf could touch off further controversy within the United States about the economic costs of America's overseas deployments. And the stationing of troops in the Mideast could eventually expose American personnel to more terrorist attacks, such as the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in which 241 service personnel were killed.

U.S. and the Arabs

In a series of television interviews last week, Kissinger argued repeatedly that American postwar diplomacy should work closely with what he called "moderate Arab governments"--such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps King Hussein's Jordan--to bring about a more lasting peace in the Middle East.

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