THE United States has fired only a few shots across tanker bows, and yet, we may have already lost the war in the Middle East. Certainly, we can crush the Iraqi armed forces. Maybe even more completely than commonly assumed. Western air power in the region is overwhelming, free to harass the supply lines of an invader, disrupt tank armies, and destroy crucial targets deep within Iraq. While Iraq's chemical stokpile and missile force pose a serious threat, they would probably be used only as a last resort, and may not even be very effective. American soldiers are equipped to shield themselves from chemical agents, and lethal nerve gas evaporates in minutes in the desert heat.
Iraq's battle-hardened 1 million-man force certainly seems formidable on paper, but its track record is not impressive. It could not take advantage of its technological edge over a poorly equipped Iranian army and fought that force to a draw.
Most Iraqi soldiers are poorly trained and many are old enough to be the fathers of the US troops they may face in combat. Iraq boasts a large tank force, but most of the equipment is inferior and could easily be outclassed in a military showdown. Hemmed in by potential enemies on all sides, Iraq cannot commit all of its forces on one front, even if it has recently reached a peace accord with its longstanding enemy to the east, Iran.
But winning battles in the sand to defend the American right to put cheap gasoline in our cars is not a way to win friends in the Middle East or bolster those moderate regimes that have supported us in the past. Like it or not, Saddam Hussein enjoys a Nasser-like charm with Arabs at large by positioning himself as the new defender of the Arab nation and as the only man who can deal with the Israeli question.
Sending vast military forces into the region may seem dramatic, an opportunity for George Bush to show the world that he is taking action, but it was a rash and foolish decision. The Iraqis were not poised to pounce on Saudi Arabia, and they respected the air-power advantage we enjoyed before the buildup. Instead, we should have allowed the Arab nations in the region to negotiate a solution, given UN sanctions a chance to work, and then, as a last resort, sent a UN task force into the Persian Gulf.
We lose in this confrontation, even if we triumph in battle, because our unilateral intervention damages the legitimacy of two Arab moderates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Saudi regime presents itself as the defender of Islam and the holy places located within its borders. After relying on non-Arab troops, essentially defilers of the faith, to protect their borders, the Saudis will have a difficult time convincing Arabs that they are still the guardians of Islamic values.
Jordan is in a no-win situation. Its people are pro-Saddam, and the Jordanian economy would be devastated if trade with its neighbor is disrupted. Roughly 40 percent of Jordan's trade and revenue comes from Iraq.
The United States may lose more than two allies in the region. Our quick decision to employ force will cripple our ability to broker an overall peace agreement involving Israel. Hampered by our pro-Israeli stance to begin with, our military intervention seriously disrupts our image as a neutral observer. Without neutrality, the United States cannot hope to play the role of mediator.
And what of Kuwait, the country whose sovereignty we have sworn to defend? The Iraqis may not be able to launch an effective offensive strike against our forces, but it proved in the Iran-Iraq war to be a pernicious defender. A major assault by the United States will obliterate Kuwait.
Certainly we will get the better of the Iraqis on the plain of battle, but George Bush may find victory elusive after he surveys the physical and political wreckage that a Middle East war will bring.