PREDICTABLY, as more than 150,000 American troops settle into the sands of Saudi Arabia for what looks like a long stay, the folks back home have begun to ask how they got there. Since few are prepared to argue that the US should not have responded once Iraq attacked, attention has focused on whether the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait could have been prevented. Spurred by reports that US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie neglected to confront Saddam Hussein with the specter of an American response when he hinted of an Iraqi attack, Democratic members of a House subcommittee have rebuked Assistant Secretary of State Near East and South Asian Affairs John Kelley for telling the committee a few days later that the US had no commitment to defend Kuwait. The members were especially indignant since they had been pushing the White House to change its pro-Iraq policy for months before the invasion, with little success.
Still, this is mean politics. Nothing is so obvious after it occurs but so indeterminate before an armed aggression. A policy that may seem clear negligence or stupidity in 20/20 hindsight was in real time almost surely a close call. Indeed, Democrats have themselves often been victims of this kind of post-attack attack: Dean Acheson on Korea in 1950, Lyndon Johnson on Czechoslovakia in 1968, Jimmy Carter on Afghanistan in 1979. They too were condemned for having failed to see future tragedy.
The second reason why the Democrats' charge is unfair is that Kuwait, like many conservative Arab kingdoms, had long made it a point to avoid the kind of explicit defense relationship with the US that is necessary to cement a meaningful security commitment. Having in mind the fate of the Shah of Iran and the dangers of an American embrace, Kuwait was skilled at playing the superpowers off against each other and was known for most of the cold war as the Arab monarchy with the closest relationship to the Soviet Union. In this regard it is worth remembering that, even as Glaspie was meeting with Saddam, the United Arab Emirates was denying a joint US-UAE naval exercise that the latter had requested only days before to ward off Iraq's blustering.
Mean politics or not, though, the debate over what the US should or could have done points to important strategic lessons that have a direct bearing on the outcome of this crisis. For weeks the press and airwaves in Washington have been dominated by commentators who claim that the US ``cannot'' allow Saddam to remain in power, that his possession of chemical and (eventually) nuclear weapons is ``intolerable,'' that war between the US and Iraq is ``inevitable.'' The argument is that, even if economic sanctions work, even if Saddam pulls out of Kuwait, he is so powerful and aggressive that he could not be deterred from other attacks in the future and must therefore be destroyed now.
If correct, this conclusion poses an dilemma for President Bush. He has been widely and justly praised for pulling together a remarkably broad-based multilateral response to this crisis, using the UN Security Council as its founders intended and bringing the new US-Soviet relationship to bear. Doubtless having in mind the earlier criticisms of his administration for its lack of vision, he has explicitly pointed to this kind of collective security as a model for post-cold war crisis management.
But short of a quick Iraqi attack on US allied troops or hostages, it is hard to imagine circumstances that would persuade America's partners to agree to launch a war against Saddam. The most any of them has publicly envisioned if economic sanctions fail is the use of military force under UN command and control, conditions firmly resisted by the US when the first UN sanctions were voted. It isn't hard to imagine how America's allies would react to a war initiated by Washington without their permission, considering that hundreds if not thousands of their nationals held hostage in Iraq might be killed by American ordnance, while Arab allies would suffer tens of thousands of casualties and much destruction. For American allies to be thus drawn into war against their will, after having been talked by the US into committing themselves to a multinational yet necessarily American-led effort, would destroy collective security for years to come.
Hence the vital importance of Washington's appreciating that the failure to deter Saddam last time does not rule out doing so later. An effective security structure for deterrent purposes is doubtless what Secretary of State James Baker had in mind when he ineptly referred in his September 4 congressional testimony to a NATO-like arrangement for the Gulf, only to withdraw the suggestion under criticism the next day.
But if Baker's form was wrong, his basic idea was right. The Saudis and the Emirates, and certainly the Kuwaitis if they are fortunate enough to have another chance to choose, are now ready to agree to the kind of physical US presence and commitment needed to make deterrence sure. Saddam is a rational man. Small, rich and unprotected - Kuwait was a logical target.
Deterrence worked for 45 years against the Soviet Union; it can work in the Gulf. It is not only the sensible alternative to war but probably the only hope for preserving a collective approach to post-cold war global security.