WE need to clarify our objectives in the Gulf. They are threefold: l. To protect Saudi Arabia and the other oil states against predatory Iraq. 2. To oust the Iraqi invader from the illegally seized state of Kuwait. 3. To prevent Iraq from unleashing chemical, and ultimately nuclear, warfare against its perceived enemies.
Insofar as objective number one is concerned, protecting Saudi Arabia, this is already achieved. The United States has enough manpower and equipment there, and enough support from a variety of allies acting under United Nations authority, to dissuade Saddam Hussein from launching a very foolhardy invasion attempt.
Objective number two, the return of Kuwait, is more complicated. Iraqi looting of Kuwait is intensely under way. Its identity is fast being obscured. Saddam Hussein announces in one bellicose pronouncement after another that Iraq will never hand it back.
Well, we'll see. There is a whiff of diplomacy in the air.
Jordan's King Hussein, who has cut a sorry political spectacle during the crisis, is still trying to play peacemaker. The French may have an opportunity to get something going. Even the Soviets, following talks between one of their envoys and Saddam Hussein, think there is a prospect of a political solution.
At the same time, the Kuwaiti government in exile has intriguingly announced it will meet with Kuwaiti exiles and dissidents and opposition elements to talk about reform in a new Kuwait.
While all this is going on, the sanctions against Iraq are beginning to bite and the UN-endorsed strategy of isolating Saddam Hussein seems exactly the right one to pursue. Put him in a box, but give him the opportunity to negotiate his way out of it. It is a strategy that requires time, patience, and unity on the part of those enforcing it.
If the strategy is changed to unleash military action against the Iraqi occupiers of Kuwait, that must be an action coordinated with the UN, and have international backing. There is no present reason for a unilateral American assault against Kuwait. That would necessarily be a ground assault with heavy American casualties. The American people are unlikely to support such a venture causing the deaths of thousands of American soldiers.
So we come to objective number three, neutralizing Saddam Hussein, the present-day Hitler, and preventing him from unleashing chemical and ultimately nuclear, warfare. There is one school urging a preemptive American strike against Iraq to destroy its capacity for such warfare. The air force thinks it could do it pretty much by itself. There is a post-Vietnam syndrome abroad among the military that if we're going to do it, this time we should ``do it right.''
There are at least two circumstances under which such a strike would be justified. One would be provocation from Iraq, such as terrorism against American installations, or a thrust through Jordan towards Israel. The other would be intelligence information indicating the Iraqis were about to use chemical weapons.
But absent such provocation is the United States justified in flattening Baghdad and strategic installations in Iraq? The aim must be to prevent Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons and any nuclear weaponry he might develop. But as Zbigniew Brzezinski points out in the New York Times on Sunday, the United States has for 40 years been able to deter the Soviet Union from using nuclear weapons. Mr. Brzezinski, no particular dove where the Soviets were concerned, was President Carter's national security adviser. He might have added that we have successfully deterred such crackpot regimes as that of Libya and North Korea from going off the deep end. Surely we have the intelligence capabilities to monitor Iraq's activities, and the wherewithal, along with such allies as Israel, to deter Iraq from unleashing chemical and nuclear war. In other words, is going to war the only way to deter Saddam Hussein?
War between the United States and Iraq may come. Indeed, so evil a force is Saddam Hussein that we must not shrink from it if he cannot be otherwise contained. But this is a time for cool heads, steady nerves, and a clear understanding of what our objectives are.