WASHINGTON — With Iraq apparently on the verge of either pulling out of Kuwait or being pushed out militarily, the topic of the hour in the Gulf War has suddenly become whether freeing the tiny sheikdom will be nearly enough to satisfy the United States and its allies.
It's a question which has been nagging at U.S. strategists since allied forces began their war against Iraq just over a month ago, and it was forced into the open after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's failed "peace" offer late last week.
Had Hussein been successful--that is, had he not loaded his proposal with conditions that he knew the allies could not accept--then the West would have faced its worst nightmare: An end to the war that left Iraq militarily intact and able to threaten its neighbors.
The irony underscores some of the ambiguities--and contradictions--that have haunted U.S. policy since the crisis in the Persian Gulf began last August.
For months, the Bush Administration has been describing the allied aim as an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The implication was that if Saddam Hussein were to turn his troops around and order them back to Baghdad, the allies would also step back, and peace would return.
But now that a fateful moment draws near--either an Iraqi capitulation or the onset of a ground campaign the allies are confident they will win--Washington and its coalition partners are furrowing their brows.
Whether the Iraqis withdraw or not, Bush and other allied leaders don't want to leave Hussein in power under any circumstances, for fear that--like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser before him--he might turn the military defeat into a political victory and become an Arab hero. Nor do they want to leave the Iraqi army intact, capable of continuing to be a long-term threat to the region.
On the other hand, if the allies go too far in their military campaign, they risk leaving a power vacuum in Iraq that could provide fertile ground to nurture some new dictator.
It's a situation that forces Bush to weigh whether the allies' original war aims go far enough--or if new demands should be added at the last minute even at the risk of kindling anti-war sentiment both at home and abroad.
Moreover, the ability to tailor what the allies see as their inevitable victory to their own taste is a task that may still not be entirely within their power. Even if Saddam Hussein doesn't come up with some new diplomatic wrinkle, they are for the moment, at least, operating under a United Nations resolution whose stated goal stops with the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty.
Virtually all the major scenarios for a quick end to the war have serious potential pitfalls:
If the Iraqi divisions that are deployed in Kuwait are decimated, but the portion of the Iraqi army that remains in Iraq survives--including much of the elite Republican Guard--then despite the huge allied war effort, Iraq can continue to threaten its neighbors.
If Hussein agrees to a withdrawal, but on terms negotiated with a country, such as the Soviet Union or Iran, that is not directly involved in the fighting, then the allies may be forced politically to accept an unsatisfactory solution.
If the Iraqi army fights to the death to hold Kuwait, suffering grievous losses itself but inflicting massive casualties on allied troops, the West will end up paying a higher price than it would like and may be forced to occupy Iraq--a costly and difficult undertaking that may also go well beyond the bounds of the U.N. resolution under which the multinational force is operating against Iraq.
From Washington's standpoint, the best possibilities would be for the Iraqi military to overthrow Hussein or for the dictator to flee Iraq to save his own life. Both also appear to be unlikely.
Bush has made his own preference clear: "There is another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."
That would avoid the prospect that the allies--particularly the United States--would have to station a huge permanent garrison in the region, something that Washington wants badly to avoid, lest it undermine U.S. hopes for improved relations with the Islamic world.
But U.S. and allied officials in Saudi Arabia doubt that Hussein will be killed or overthrown. Assassination attempts by Iraqi dissidents have been brutally repressed in the recent past.
And, even if an assassination effort were to work, there is no clear successor to Hussein. The major opposition groups in Iraq are disorganized, and all of the potential military or Baathist Party heirs-apparent seem to offer more of the same.