It's Not Worth Fighting a War

PRESIDENT Bush has rounded up his posse and is riding hard in defense of international law. Secretary Baker has sounded the refrain: ``No partial solutions!'' Saddam Hussein will pay. At the same time, the United States is serenely flouting international law by providing aid to the rebel Jonas Savimbi against the legal government of Angola, a government that is a member of the United Nations, a government recognized by a large majority of nations.

In December 1975, as the people of East Timor prepared to declare their independence after centuries of Portuguese rule, neighboring Indonesia invaded - `a la Iraq. Meeting resistance, it slaughtered on a scale that makes Saddam Hussein's brutality against the people of Kuwait appear like a gentle spanking - more than 100,000 were killed in Timor, possibly one out of every seven inhabitants.

The point of retelling these details is not to pettily criticize the US. It is to place Saddam's behavior in context. And this for very pragmatic policy reasons.

If we demonize Saddam's behavior (which we didn't do when he was simply gassing the Kurds), if we really consider that his annexation of Kuwait is beyond the pale, if we indulge in the silly and meaningless comparison with Hitler, then we paint ourselves into a corner. Then all we can do is don our crusader's helmet and march against the infidel.

And if we don the crusader's helmet, we can make no concessions to Saddam. We have to force him out of Kuwait unconditionally. In order to do this, we have the embargo, and we have tens of thousands of troops simmering in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The embargo, experts warn us, will hurt Iraq - the ruler and the people - but it will not force the tyrant out of Kuwait.

Military action will be necessary. That is, war. War waged by the US against Iraq with our allies looking on and offering minimal assistance. We may hope to avoid sending in ground troops and just bomb the Iraqis into submission. But what is more likely is that we will have to do both. A threadbare cloak of multilateralism will not hide that it will be US bombs, US planes, US soldiers doing the killing and being killed.

Even if we keep bludgeoning the Japanese and other allies into paying, it will still cost us a bundle of money, it will cost American and Arab lives, it will sow hatred in the Arab world against the US, and it will weaken our friends in the region. What for?

If we truly believe that Saddam's behavior cannot be tolerated, then we have little choice: We are prisoners of our duty, all the while bemoaning that our allies have less noble principles than we do and that we always have to do the job - on their behalf (America's lot!).

If we take a less exalted view - if we think of our own transgressions, and those of our friends with whom we have lived so well - then we may search for a more pragmatic solution. This solution would mean some concessions to the aggressor (an aggressor, let us acknowledge, whose historical claims against Kuwait have some validity). The concessions will address Bubiyan Island and the Rumaila oil field that straddles the border of the two countries. The first will guarantee Iraq access to the sea, the second will provide it money.

But this, worthy souls will say, means rewarding the aggressor. Well, this is something we can live with. How many Americans - common citizens and policymakers - have lost sleep because Indonesian aggression in Timor has gone unpunished? Indeed, our relations with Indonesia have survived the disturbance robustly. And our friend Hassan II of Morocco sits in the Western Sahara, which he grabbed by force. This, too, we have endured, as we endure our own violations of international law against Angola.

War to force Saddam Hussein unconditionally out of Kuwait would be justified if vital US interests were threatened. But what vital interests are at stake? Concessions regarding Bubiyan Island and the Rumaila oil field would not threaten American vital interests. Some will say, of course, that Saddam will move again. (One could have said the same for Suharto after he gobbled up Timor, or for Hassan II after he grabbed the Western Sahara.) In fact, it is more likely that he will lick his wounds and be chastened by the risks he ran. Saddam is not Hitler, he is just a local thug - like Suharto. It is not worth going to war against him to teach him - at enormous cost - a moral lesson.

Should he refuse to negotiate, or should he threaten America's vital interests in the future, then it will be time to consider war. But not before then.

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