THE embargo of Iraq and Kuwait could turn into a medieval siege. In days of yore, an enemy would surround a walled town or fortress, block all going and coming, and try to starve its people into submission. Success could take many years. Horror stories abound about the suffering of besieged people.
In the case of Iraq, the siege may not take so long, experts reckon. Food shortages could develop as early as autumn, says John Parker, an economist with the Department of Agriculture who specializes in the Middle East.
That's because Iraq imports 70 to 80 percent of the food consumed by its 17 million people, Kuwait some 95-97 percent.
Iraq buys 3.5 million tons of wheat, about 600,000 tons of rice, and 2 million tons of feed for the chickens and other livestock raised in that country. A grain crop has just been harvested in northern Iraq, where water is more abundant. Much of that is consumed locally. Baghdad and points south largely depend on imported food.
Will an embargo hold? Will the United States actually permit a famine should President Saddam Hussein prove stubborn enough, perhaps even popular enough, at home to resist a siege for many months?
President Bush, at his news conference Wednesday, insisted that a successful embargo ``has to encompass everything.'' But he did caution that pockets of starving children might prompt him to take another look at the embargo.
Technically, the imposition of a siege on Iraq is unusually easy. ``This looks like a really unique case where an embargo can work,'' says C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics in Washington.
Since oil exports account for more than 90 percent of Iraq's export income and even a larger percentage for Kuwait, the US and other nations must only cut off those exports to put a financial squeeze on Iraq. Oil exports by a double pipeline through Turkey have already been much reduced. Turkey, which gets most of its crude from that pipeline, says it will seek oil elsewhere. Oil has nearly stopped flowing through another Iraqi pipeline that crosses Saudi Arabia. Any tanker shipments via the Gulf could easily be intercepted - if the US and its allies in this venture thought it desirable to add a blockade to the embargo.
But, according to Richard Cooper, a Harvard University economist and former State Department official, it isn't really necessary to block all Iraqi or Kuwaiti oil exports. The Iraqis will not find a great demand for it. ``It shouldn't trouble us if 1 million barrels per day or 1.5 million barrels get out,'' he says.
The key pressure point is the embargo on exports to Iraq. That may require some pressure on Jordan not to permit truck traffic from the port Aqaba to Iraq, as happened during the Iraq-Iran war.
Since the major food suppliers to Iraq have already promised to adhere to the embargo, traffic through Jordan may not be too significant. A State Department official gave these numbers for shipments of food to Iraq (not all the same year): US $509 million; European Community $214 million; Australia $139 million; Brazil $120 million; and Canada $84 million. The other major supplier, Turkey ($204 million), has not said it will comply, citing the allowance for ``humanitarian'' aid to Iraq in the United Nations stern embargo resolution.
If Kuwait did not have that massive pool of oil under its territory, the industrialized nations probably would not have got so excited about Iraq annexing this former British protectorate. A former Iraqi prime minister tried this in 1961, claiming that Kuwait belonged to Iraq ethnically, geographically, and socially. The British sent in troops to preserve this colonial relic.
Senegal can send in troops to Gambia, and the West yawns. In the case of Kuwait, however, the US and other nations see a threat to their supply of oil.
``There is a double standard here,'' admits Peter Kenen, a Princeton University economist. ``We wouldn't give a damn if there was only a piece of sand involved.'' However, given Iraq's violent method of acquiring the sheikdom, Hussein has no right to complain about his treatment by the world, Mr. Kenen adds.