WASHINGTON — AS the Gulf crisis stretches into its third week, there is no hint of negotiations. US military forces have moved an astounding amount of men and weapons to Saudi Arabia and appear ready for a lengthy stay in the desert.
Fully one-quarter of the 200,000-strong active-duty Marine Corps is either in Saudi Arabia or on the way there. With almost two dozen radar-avoiding F-117 Stealth fighters and elements of yet another Army regiment, the 3rd Armored Cavalry, moving out last week, the US Arabian deployment is now so large and complex that US officers are reaching back to World War II for comparison.
The expected call-up of tens of thousands of military reservists only underscores the seriousness with which the Bush administration views the Gulf standoff. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has declined to rule out the possibility that US forces will be in Saudi Arabia for years, while US warships have already begun enforcing the interdiction of Iraqi trade.
On Saturday, two US Navy ships fired warning shots across the bows of two oil-ladden Iraqi tankers. One incident took place in the Persian Gulf, the other in the Gulf of Oman. In each case, the tankers refused to stop. The Iraqi government has sent a letter to UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar protesting US interdiction efforts.
Yet even as the massive military buildup continued, President Bush remained silent on exactly what US objectives in the Gulf are. Though the administration undoubtedly does not want to tip its political hand to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, or unnecessarily corner him, congressional and diplomatic sources warned that this lack of specificity could come back to haunt the US.
``I think the way the president has laid out our objectives is going to get us in trouble,'' said Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
On one level, US goals for Operation Desert Shield are clear. The short-term purpose of the US military might in Saudi Arabia is to prevent Iraqi tanks from continuing to roll south down the Arabian Peninsula. Mr. Bush has insisted, at the least, Iraq must vacate Kuwait, and that Kuwait's ruling emir should be restored.
Beyond that, Bush in his tub-thumping Pentagon speech last week said that ``our way of life'' would be threatened if Saddam Hussein gained control of the Arabian Peninsula's vast oil reserves. Western access to oil at resonable prices is clearly an underlying purpose of the US effort.
But Bush has not explicitly laid out what free Western access to oil means, or what he envisions Iraq's role should be. By closely linking the US Gulf operation to restoration of Kuwait's previous status, he risks getting only what he has specifically asked for, and no more, according to critics.
The worst-case scenario for the US might be if Saddam were to make an about-face, and withdraw from Kuwait. Then the US and the multinational Arab force in Saudi Arabia would have to withdraw - leaving Saddam in power and his army intact and a shadow on the Gulf, able to manipulate the oil pricing decisions of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The US stance should be: ``Saddam Hussein has got to go, or his army has got to go,'' said Representative Aspin. Failing that, the US should be prepared to be part of a permanent, multinational force based in Saudi Arabia to ensure that country's independence of action on oil pricing.
Arab diplomats warn that the distinction between standing up to Iraqi aggression and standing up for $25-a-barrel oil is a major one. Iraqi withdrawal and restoration of Kuwait's status quo is something that can be negotiated, they say; protection of perceived oil interests is something that would require a much more serious, long-term commitment to Saudi Arabia.
Publicly, the Arab nations that have sent troops to Saudi Arabia as part of the joint Arab League effort say they want nothing more than restoration of the emir to Kuwait. That would be humiliation enough for Saddam, they say. To make his overthrow a goal of the US-Arab League military effort would only corner the Iraqi leader, they say, perhaps driving him to desparate and deadly attacks. He is already talking about housing foreigners caught in Iraq at military bases and other possible bombing targets.
Privately diplomats acknowledge that the threat and fear of Saddam would then still hang over the Arab world. ``Nothing short of Saddam being overthrown'' can expunge what he has done, said a diplomat from the region who requested anonymity.
Yet time may be on Saddam's side. As the US military buildup reaches massive proportions, unrest in the streets may make it increasingly hard for Arab leaders to maintain a front against him.
``The longer you stay, the more the Saudi royal family's position is undermined,'' said an Arab diplomat.