SADDAM HUSSEIN has flagrantly violated the most fundamental principle of international law; and if left unchecked his aggression runs a serious risk of undermining the post-cold war international security system, further destabilizing the prospects for peace and justice in the Middle East, and precipitating an international economic depression that will impair the first and third worlds alike. Virtually no one outside Iraq advocates permitting Saddam Hussein to ``win'' in consequence of his aggression. At the same time, the prospect of a major war in the Gulf is, at best, only slightly less unacceptable. The only policy that makes any sense at all is deterrence.
Deterrence is a function of two variables: perceived strength and perceived will. If Saddam Hussein genuinely is convinced that the forces aligned against him possess both the power and the willingness to use that power to cause him greater harm than the benefits he anticipates from his current course of action, his past conduct suggests that he will modify his behavior and peace may be possible.
The ``power'' side of the deterrence equation is rather simple. There can be no doubt in Saddam's mind that the United States has the military strength to defeat him decisively in battle. With virtually the entire world united at the side of the US, not even a madman would perceive that Iraq stood a chance of military success.
Sadly, on the will side of the deterrence equation, Saddam has recently been getting providential signals that time is on his side and that if he can only hold firm for a short while the UN alliance will crumble. These signals have dramatically increased the likelihood that American men and women will soon be coming home by the planeload in body bags.
One recent blow to deterrence occurred on Nov. 8, when UN Secretary General P'erez de Cu'ellar casually remarked to the press that the passage of three months time had terminated the right of individual states to use force against Iraq under the ``collective self-defense'' provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter. First of all, he is clearly wrong as a matter of law: The rape of Kuwait did not end on Aug. 2 but continues full force today; and countries that have hostages in Iraq or Kuwait have a clear and independent basis to use force if necessary under the ``self-defense'' provision of Article 51. Furthermore, in the long run, a rule that nations must promptly respond to aggression with the use of armed force or forfeit their defensive rights would serve effectively to vitiate the important principle reflected in Article 2(3) of the Charter, which obligates states to seek peaceful means to resolve disputes before resorting to armed force. Most important, such an apparently authoritative interpretation of the Charter can be expected to provide immense comfort to Saddam Hussein at precisely the time that the Secretary General ought to be trying to convince him that an armed response is inevitable unless he promptly ceases his aggression, withdraws his forces, and makes restitution for his crimes.
Another unnecessary blow to the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the crisis came from former President Jimmy Carter, who on Nov. 16 suggested to students at Hofstra University that the crisis might be resolved by giving Iraq part of Kuwaiti territory in return for its withdrawal from the rest of the country.
The greatest damage of all, however, has come from members of the US Congress. Saddam knows that Congress ultimately ``pulled the plug'' on US military opposition to aggression in Indochina, Angola, and Nicaragua.
Whatever the merits of the congressional claim that President Bush will need formal legislative approval to initiate hostilities against Iraq under current circumstances - and it should be kept in mind that the president clearly has at least some authority to use armed force without congressional authorization to rescue or protect the US hostages in Iraq - the steps he has taken to date have been well within the scope of his authority as commander in chief. The congressional outcry is based entirely upon speculation that the president will ultimately commit US forces to a ``war'' against Iraq. This point could easily have been made behind closed doors. Instead, Congress has publicly assured Saddam: ``Don't worry about Bush's blustering - you have the assurance of Congress that he lacks the power to do anything serious to Iraq.'' At minimum, this reassures Saddam that he will have substantial warning before the US can legally make armed response to his aggression. Why should he make concessions now?
Thanks to the UN secretary general, President Carter, and the US Congress, the ability of the American president to produce an Iraqi withdrawal through the rhetoric of deterrence, without lives being lost, has been seriously undermined. The choice now may well be between waiting for Saddam to perfect his nuclear and bacteriological weapons in preparation for round three (and remember, round one, against Iran, claimed about 1 million lives without such weapons), or repurchasing our national credibility with the lives of tens of thousands of our young men and women. If true, it is a sad choice - and it was probably unnecessary.