Hard Choices In Gulf Policy

Bush has done most things right to this point in the crisis; now a critical question is whether he'll allow Saddam a way out

IN general, the Bush administration has handled the Persian Gulf crisis well up to this point. Somebody needed to stand up for the weak against the strong, as was not done in the case of Ethiopia versus Italy in the 1930s. The policy has received impressive and encouraging international support, and the American military establishment has performed brilliantly in moving an awesome force into the area. Now come harder choices. The administration has rightly made great efforts to get international agreement on a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to dislodge the Iraqis from Kuwait. Even more important, both legally and politically, is a resolution of the United States Congress. As most presidents have done, George Bush can operate under an exaggerated notion of his powers as commander-in-chief and get away with it most of the time. As his recent predecessors have done, Bush can also deny the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution and refuse to recognize any obligation under it. And like his recent predecessors, he can get away with this, too, most of the time. But if he is thinking about going to war against Iraq, he had better not only take the United Nations with him; he had better take Congress with him.

Before he reaches that point, he needs to give some hard thought to some hard choices. These involve trade-offs and cost effectiveness. They may come down to the question: At what point does getting Iraq out of Kuwait cost more than it is worth, or than the American people are prepared to pay? Failure to identify that point correctly is what ruined Lyndon Johnson in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

If you are not going to drive the Iraqis out by force, you have to persuade them to leave. The economic boycott is designed to do that, and international compliance with the boycott has been greater than many people initially thought possible. We do not know precisely what impact this is having in Iraq nor how long the boycott can be sustained.

It is good that Bush finally abandoned his stubborn resistance to talking to the Iraqis until they leave Kuwait. Entering a negotiation does not mean you thereby agree to any of the other party's demands. All it means is that you agree to talk to him. It may mean that you can help him find a way to abandon his demands. Nor does this have to e done directly.

One choice Bush is going to have to make is whether he wants to get Saddam out of Kuwait or whether he wants to rub Saddam's nose in the desert sand. Bush's public statements sound very much like he wants to do both; but insisting on rubbing Saddam's nose in the sand will almost certainly make it more difficult to get him out of Kuwait. It is a fundamental rule of diplomacy to leave a way out for your antagonist. A principal criticism of Bush's otherwise well executed policy is that the administration has been closing ways out for Saddam, not opening them.

A related choice has to do with timing. The dynamics of the situation argue for acting sooner rather than later. The thousands of troops in the Saudi Arabian desert are restless and will get more so, as will their families (all of whom are constituents of some member of Congress). Interaction between these troops and the strait-laced Saudis cannot be kept friction-free indefinitely. Long-term deployment of this magnitude suggests the need for rotation. It will strain military manpower and supply capabilities and will suggest rethinking the total size of the armed forces. Might it also, heaven forbid, suggest reinstituting the draft?

It can also be expected that the American people generally and their representatives in Congress will become more impatient as the stand-off continues. There may arise a cry either to fight or to come home.

If it comes to this, a decision to go to war has to have participation (not just support, but participation) by allies, and authority (not just support but legal authority) from Congress. The United Nations supported the Korean War but there was precious little participation by anybody else.

The question also has to be asked, What will the area be like after a war? To paraphrase an army officer talking about a village in Vietnam, suppose we have to destroy Kuwait in order to save it?

Not counting the incalculable price of people who get killed, these are the elements which will determine whether a war is cost effective. One can sometimes pay too high a price for victory, even when the cause is right and just. Worse, one can sometimes pay too high a price and still not win, as in Vietnam.

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