THE Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has jolted the United States out of a blissful reverie induced by months of good news about world affairs. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's aggression illustrates the dangers the world faces in the new geopolitical era. The invasion is the very model of a post-cold-war conflict, featuring a brutal dictator whose ambitions threaten regional stability and the economic interests of West and East alike.
Ironically, the invasion came just as the US Senate was debating its annual military authorization bill, and may have contributed to a majority of senators voting to maintain the B-2 Stealth bomber program. But the Persian Gulf is so distant from US bases, and Iraqi forces so battle-hardened, that most analysts discount the possibility of military action, at least on the ground.
Cooperative economic action may be the only US option. ``The only way to handle this is through a multilateral framework, where you pressure Iraq and bring it down to size. That's the wave of the future,'' says Thomas McNaugher, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
Such cooperation snowballed over the weekend after President Bush announced last Thursday that the US had frozen $30 billion in Iraqi and Kuwait assets and had slapped an embargo on oil imports from Iraq.
Following the US lead, the 12-member European Community on Saturday placed an embargo on oil imports from Iraq and Kuwait, froze Iraqi assets, and banned arms sales to Iraq. The two Gulf nations supply 10.9 percent of the community's oil needs. The 12 also agreed to implement any UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions against Iraq, should the country's leader, Saddam Hussein, decide to keep troop in Kuwait.
On Sunday, China's Foreign Ministry announced that Beijing would no longer sell weapons to Iraq. The Chinese government has supplied significant amounts of weapons, including short-range missiles, to Baghdad.
The invasion has already produced a move that may grow more common: the US and the Soviet Union cooperating in search of peace in a troubled region. Last Friday Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State James Baker III stood together at a Moscow airport and read a statement calling for all nations to cut off arms sales to Iraq.
The Soviet Union had long been an Iraqi ally and one of its chief weapons suppliers. Because of this relationship ``it wasn't so easy for us to make the kind of statement we made,'' Mr. Shevardnadze said.
If Mr. Hussein's army keeps rolling through Kuwait into Saudi Arabia, however, the US may be forced to come up with an armed response. The US-Saudi relationship is much closer than the US-Kuwaiti one, and the US could ill-afford to have Hussein Saddam control the huge Saudi oil reserves.
The US indicated as much on Friday, when the administration advised NATO allies that the US would ``not stand by'' if Iraq moves into Saudi territory.
US House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin was more blunt. He called on the White House to ``draw a line in the sand'' at the Saudi-Kuwait border and to warn Iraq that an invasion of Saudi Arabia ``means war'' with the US.
From a military perspective, the problem for the US in the Kuwaiti crisis is that the Iraqi military is large, well-armed, and toughened by years of desperate fighting with Iran. Iraq would be an opponent of a whole other category than, say Libya.
``We do have military options in the near term against Iraq,'' insists Marvin Feuerwerger, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ``These primarily fall in the realm of the use of our air and naval forces, long range.''
The US currently has eight warships in the Gulf, although they lack aircraft and amphibious forces. The aircraft carrier USS Independence and its six-ship battle group, stationed in the Indian Ocean, are steaming toward the Gulf. The US also could have at its disposal a task force built around the carrier USS Eisenhower, currently winding up a six-month tour in the Mediterranean, and the carrier USS Saratoga's 14-ship task force, which is scheduled to leave East Coast bases today and tomorrow to replace the Eisenhower's units.
But it's unlikely that Hussein would be spooked by a punitive air raid, and it's problematic whether air and naval strikes would push the Iraqis out of Kuwait if they didn't want to go.
A 16,000 man brigade of Marines could be dispatched to the Persian Gulf in a week, but they would be little match for Iraq's heavy-tank forces. The US is now being confronted with the dilemma that has worried Pentagon planners ever since President Carter declared the US would defend Persian Gulf oil: lack of a US base with ground troops on-site in the region.
Pentagon leaders have negotiated with a number of Middle Eastern nations for such base access, and several times have thought themselves close to a deal. Instead, they have had to settle for a little-noticed network of facilities with prepositioned, non-weapon military equipment in Oman and other countries near the Gulf.
A need for resources - cash and oil - appears to have been a major reason why Saddam Hussein moved on his small, wealthy neighbor, even after it helped him out in his lengthy struggle with archfoe Iran. In the future, such squabbles over resources could well become more frequent. Water, as well as oil, will become an increasingly precious commodity in the Middle East, notes guest scholar Judith Kipper of Brookings.
Kuwait's ability to in essence cut Iraq's income by increasing its own oil production was apparently the spark that finally caused Hussein to move. In this there could be a sobering lesson for those who think the growing internationalization of economies will make the world more peaceful.
``Econonomic interdependence causes war as much as it causes peace,'' says John Mearsheimer, chairman of the political science department at the University of Chicago.