THE sound of gunfire in Kuwait had barely died away before post-mortems began in Washington on why the United States appeared to be surprised by the Iraqi invasion. But even had confirmed knowledge of Iraqi intentions been available, obstacles would still have existed to effective US action. And those obstacles remain. The first is the strong reluctance of Arab states in the region, particularly in the Arabian peninsula, to cooperate openly with the United States, despite common economic interests. This reluctance stems from a combination of factors: the fear that such cooperation would be exploited against them by extreme Arab nationalist, Islamist, and Palestinian factions and a lack of confidence in the commitments of the United States.
The Iraqi action has, for the moment, displaced the Arab-Israeli issue as the central concern in the region. But the unresolved Palestinian issue remains a volatile element in efforts to deal with the invasion. Even conservative regimes are aware that Saddam Hussein's strength and threatening rhetoric have made him a hero among many Palestinians who see the United States, with its support for Israel, as their enemy.
This awareness in the capitals of the Gulf, along with the undercurrent of opposition to American involvement, combines with genuine doubts about the possibility of effective US support in a time of crisis. The Saudi Arabian royal family witnessed the inability of the United States to prevent the fall of the Shah of Iran and has, over many years, experienced strong opposition in Congress to US arms sales to to the Saudi kingdom.
The second obstacle to effective US preparation for the Iraqi invasion is related to the first. The unwillingness of Arab states to provide military facilities, even for advance stockpiling of materiel, has severely limited the US capacity to act. The distance of the region from the United States, combined with Washington's other global commitments, have further reduced this capacity. Only now, in the face of the events in Kuwait, are Defense Department officials admitting how long it would take effective US forces to arrive in the region.
The United States has maintained a symbol of military presence through its naval deployments. These were sufficient to play a role in the final days of the Iraq-Iran War in 1988; they are far from sufficient to deter Saddam Hussein's massive ground forces.
The third obstacle to US preparations in past crises has been the more cautious attitude of other major industrial powers. On several occasions - early requests for strong action against Iran and Libya are examples - US allies have not shared Washington's view of the seriousness of the threat. So it is doubtful that American representatives could have gained broad cooperation against Saddam Hussein in Europe and Asia before a major crisis erupted.
This third factor has now been virtually eliminated because other nations clearly see their interests and their reasonable access to oil at stake. The United States has, for the moment, strong support from Europe and Japan and, for the first time, from the Soviet Union. Japan has indicated its willingness to enact sanctions under a UN resolution. The obstacles to effective action against Iraq, however, remain.
Until now, inherent contradictions in the relationship of the United States with the countries of the Arabian peninsula have been masked by rhetoric and transient common interests. The declaration of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 of US opposition to the domination of the Gulf by an outside power gave some comfort following the fall of the Shah - though few looked realistically at US limitations. American action in the Persian Gulf further indicated Washington's concern for the region - although the fear of a greater Soviet presence weighed as heavily as any US interest in the Arab states. And in few cases have the Saudis and others had to make a clear choice in their policies between an Arab aggressor and cooperation with the United States.
The masks of rhetoric and equivocation have now been peeled off by Iraq. The Arab states must make hard choices, and the United States must face its limitations in this volatile area. Any post-mortem of these recent events, to be honest, must acknowledge that in the absence of the invasion few would have been prepared to face these realities.