WASHINGTON — As the guns fall silent in the Persian Gulf, the focus has quickly shifted to an even more complex and risky task than Operation Desert Storm's ouster of Iraq from Kuwait: finding a formula for stability in the world's most volatile region.
"We do not seek to chart the destiny of other nations," President Bush declared when he announced deployment of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf last August.
But when Secretary of State James A. Baker III heads to the Middle East on Wednesday, he will be seeking, in consultation with the Gulf allies, to draw up a blueprint for peace affecting two dozen nations--ranging from Morocco on the Atlantic to Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Indian Ocean.
The peace agenda centers on six major goals:
* Reconstructing Kuwait politically and physically.
* Providing enduring security arrangements in the Persian Gulf.
* Ending the 43-year Arab-Israeli dispute.
* Setting up new arms-control systems on weapons of mass destruction.
* Closing the gap between the region's super-rich and super-poor.
* And transforming Iraq into a state that can coexist peacefully with its neighbors.
Unlike Operation Desert Storm, the odds of success are daunting. Two popular Middle East axioms are pertinent:
* First--diplomacy is always overtaken by events on the ground. Baker's own five-point plan to generate movement on the Palestinian problem was overtaken and outdated by Iraq's aggression, for example.
* Second--change always follows military upheavals. The singular success in Mideast mediation--the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt--grew out of the 1973 war. But radical regimes have also been born out of conflict--Egypt's monarchy was overthrown after the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, when the state of Israel emerged, and Iraq's monarchy was ousted after the 1956 war. The emergence of Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, the strongmen who went on to lead Iraq and Syria, respectively, followed the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Bush Administration is counting on the unprecedented clout of the United States and its allies after routing Iraq and the political shifts this has spawned to move toward peaceful change.
A senior Administration official said: "I think we have a new chance to tackle (the region's problems) and a more favorable basis than there has been since 1948." Still, this official was cautious in assessing prospects for solving those six major issues. "I'm not dumb," he said. "This is the Middle East."
KUWAIT: RESTRUCTURING A NATION
The immediate task in devastated Kuwait will be physically rebuilding a nation almost from scratch. The government of Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah has pledged $800 million just to restore emergency health care, utilities, communications and to provide free food for three months. Cleanup from the seven-month occupation could total $100 billion.
But the political reconstruction of Kuwait will be the bigger issue and challenge. And the political course charted by Kuwait is almost certain to have sweeping impact on the five other Gulf monarchies and increase internal pressures for change throughout the Arabian peninsula.
The most contentious issue is how far the sheikdom will move toward pluralism and democracy. It has been virtually a family-run business for the Sabah clan since 1756. Long the most liberal of the Gulf kingdoms, Kuwait is the only emirate with a constitutional provision for a national assembly.
Yet whenever it has become a genuine forum for opposition, the assembly has been suspended. It last met in 1986, when press freedoms were also suspended. And only men whose families have been residents since 1921 can vote.
The 1991 U.S. human rights report cites concerns about Kuwait's "restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, the right of citizens to change their government, women and workers' rights, and instances of arbitrary arrest, mistreatment of prisoners and lack of due process."
The political divide, once tolerated as Kuwaitis enjoyed the world's highest per capita income through much of the 1980s, has deepened since Aug. 2, according to U.S. officials.
Upon its return, the government faces a serious cleavage between those who stayed behind, bitterly enduring or resisting Iraq's occupation, and the Kuwaitis who abandoned their nation for the safety of exile, including most of the royal family.
In the royal family's absence, the resistance also established an efficient and committed political corps that wants a significant role in Kuwait's political future.
The Bush Administration is gently urging political change. Last week, the National Republican Institute for International Affairs, which promotes democracy overseas, met with the Kuwaiti ambassador, Sheik Saud al Nasir al Sabah, to offer advice on building political parties, parliamentary procedures and expanding the franchise.