Unity in the Gulf

THE heart of United States policy in the Gulf, to this point, has been the international coalition skillfully assembled to oppose Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. That coalition is experiencing strains as the Jan. 15 deadline for use of force against Iraq nears. The Bush administration's concentration on the readiness of American forces in the region may imply a decreasing concern with the readiness of all elements in the coalition to act in concert. Secretary of Defense Cheney indicated, during his just-completed visit to the Gulf, that the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the British could be counted on, while the French and the Syrians were doubtful if war broke out.

The multinational nature of the campaign against Iraq remains critical, however. The US should resist the tendency to act singly as the probability of war appears to increase.

Strains within the alliance arise from differences over the goals of potential military action - forcing Iraq from Kuwait, versus the broader objective of reducing Iraq's military power. They also arise from the prospect of a partial Iraqi withdrawal, which could reduce the conflict to a border dispute over a couple of islands and a bit of oil field. If Saddam Hussein should attempt such a move, some allies of the US might be less inclined to fight.

President Bush and his aides have hastened to address these concerns. They've said repeatedly that Iraq's complete withdrawal is the goal, in accord with UN demands - and that a partial withdrawal would not lift the threat of attack. They've also tried to give assurances that the coalition could survive an Iraqi attempt to draw Israel into the conflict.

But the assurance most needed to boost unity is a reaffirmation that means other than war are still actively under consideration. Direct talks between Washington and Baghdad could still prove useful, and every effort should be made to revive that plan. The extended sanctions option may be scorned in the White House, but it's far from dead in Congress.

No one questions the need to demonstrate that aggression will not pay. There's also a need to avoid accepting as inevitable a war that is likely to prove far more complicated than the short, fierce strike some US commanders envision.

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