A COUNTDOWN of great foreboding dominates our passing days. So, in the somber spirit of New Year 1991, I offer the following conundrum: Think of a national leader who came to power after a long and careful apprenticeship and served mainly in the realm of foreign affairs. This leader, once in power, feels he has to quiet lingering accusations of wimpdom.
Our mystery person appoints as head of his State Department someone with little foreign affairs experience. The plot thickens. During his second year in office, the leader is presented with a strong challenge in the Middle East. Still struggling to best the wimp factor, and with the lessons of Munich 1936 ringing in his ears, he decides to respond ``like a man'' - through military means.
OK, you say, this is not much of a plot, or a mystery. The answer is George Bush, isn't it?
No, it isn't. The answer to this quiz is Anthony Eden. He was the British Prime Minister who in the fall of 1956 ordered the military action against Egypt at Suez which brought to an inglorious end his country's once-proud claim to Mideast leadership.
The analogies between the stories of President Bush and Mr. Eden are possibly of no more than passing interest. The analogies between the consequences of the Suez campaign for British power, and the consequence of any inappropriate American military action on the Gulf should be of intense concern today.
It was not that the Suez operation undertaken by the British along with the French and Israelis failed at the military level. Militarily, things happened almost according to plan. What Eden and his collaborators had failed to plan correctly was the crucial political dimension of their action.
In 1982, the Israelis made a similar mistake when they failed to make appropriate political plans to accompany their successful military move into Lebanon. Having won the war there, Israel's Likud government then royally lost the peace that followed. By 1985, their forces had pulled back to where they had started. A pro-Syrian government was in place in Beirut. The Syrian military had obtained new weapons systems. And Palestinian nationalism was shifting its focus from Lebanon to new forms of resistance in the occupied territories.
The cost of these ``achievements'' to Israel was 1,200 of their soldiers dead, and the enmity they earned from killing an estimated 15,000-plus Lebanese and Palestinians.
Mr. Bush, we are told, takes very seriously the need not to repeat the mistakes made in Munich or Vietnam. That is laudable. But the president should also try to learn from the mistakes made in Suez in 1956, and in Lebanon in 1982. Indeed, as prime examples of unsuccessful campaigns waged by non-Arab powers against Arab targets in modern times, these examples may provide lessons of more value to President Bush than those of Munich or Vietnam. Lessons like these:
Any use of force that is not based on a winning political strategy will end up having negative consequences. At stake here might be not just the balance in one country, as in Lebanon in 1982, or in the broader Mideast, as at Suez. At stake in this Gulf crisis might be much of the United States' claim to international leadership.
A winning strategy in the Gulf cannot be based on an American occupation of Iraq. The Israelis found it far harder to get out of Lebanon than to get in. Bush will need to find either a credible alternative to Saddam Hussein, or a way of curbing his power so that he poses no future challenge to regional stability. No credible alternative to Saddam is now in sight.
One key failure of Eden's Suez effort was his refusal to consult with important allies - especially in Washington. (Another failure, in both the Suez and the Lebanon campaigns, was their authors' refusal to consult effectively with either their own regional experts or their national publics.) Any use of military force in the Middle East can be a wildly unpredictable business. Better, then, that the risks involved in such a venture be as broadly as possible shared between the nations.
Up until November, President Bush did act in productive coordination with Arab and international allies. But the unilateral way he has acted since Nov. 8, the day he announced the doubling of the American deployment in the Gulf region, poses risks to the whole anti-Saddam campaign.
The days pass. It is not too late to return to the collective-security approach that Bush used so successfully from August through October. He could still launch a high-level consultation with allied leaders. These leaders could jointly applaud the success of collective efforts to date, including their success in cutting Iraq's oil-income jugular. The allies could be invited to send additional units to replace some of the American forces now in the desert. They would doubtless respond by demanding a greater share in the decisionmaking. Granting this would then underline the role of collective security in the new world we want to build.
The days pass.