Leaving a Powderkeg

Whether by sanctions or by military force, Saddam's defeat must be complete, or else the US will need to return to the Mideast and finish the job

THE United States has vital interests at stake in the Persian Gulf, and the failure of the president to explain these interests clearly is one of the most frustrating and dangerous aspects of the current crisis. Clearly most Americans are convinced that the confrontation is about cheap oil; in light of Secretary Baker's unfortunate remarks about ``jobs,'' who can blame them? But jobs and oil are not the essence of the crisis, nor are vague notions like ``American credibility'' or the defense of ``a new world order.'' On the contrary, the confrontation with Saddam Hussein is about power, who will wield it, and to what ends it will be used. In this context, a victory for Saddam Hussein would constitute a grave defeat for the US, and a catastrophic one for its Middle Eastern allies. If Saddam Hussein holds on to Kuwait, he will double his capacity to produce and sell oil, and he will have control of 20 percent of the world's known petroleum reserves. Certainly he will make a lot of money and that he will have influence on price levels. Even so, if he were merely a robber baron, willing to sell oil to anyone who would pay his price, it would clearly be cheaper for the US to cave in than to go to war.

Saddam Hussein's greed is not the problem. The problem is what he means to do with his new riches. No one supposes that he will devote the money to clinics in Kurdish villages or to famine relief in the Sudan. Kuwait's oil revenues will fund his vast military machine at a far higher standard of training and equipment than it now enjoys. In effect, he will have one of the world's most massive armies for free. He will redouble his efforts to obtain a nuclear capacity. Within the Middle East, Iraq will be a superpower, precisely as Germany was in Europe in 1939. I do not say this for dramatic effect; it is the simple truth.

Would Saddam use his enhanced power to conquer Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates? Probably not, but he would certainly bully and cajole them into supporting his policies. We could expect efforts to subvert the governments of Egypt, Morocco, Syria, even Jordan, if they failed to line up behind him. Terrorism aimed at US and European targets is likely, and it would be generously funded. Finally, an intensified confrontation with Israel is inevitable; both Saddam's character and his position as the chief spokesman for militant Arab nationalism will drive him to it. Since Israel has a notoriously short fuse even in the face of minor provocations, we must expect a new Arab-Israeli war in fairly short order, this one far more destructive and dangerous than its predecessors.

What then is to be done? Regrettably, all the answers are bad ones. In view of the threat posed by Saddam's occupation of Kuwait, and indeed by the very nature of his regime, a massive military strike might seem appealing. But the cure could well be worse than the disease. To begin with, such a strike is likely to provoke massive unrest throughout the Arab world. States like Egypt, even if they survived the storm, would be compelled to withdraw from the anti-Iraqi alliance. Whether the Saudis could withstand political pressures within the region is an open question. But even if they did, the US position in the Persian Gulf would become nearly untenable.

IF we restrict our attention to Iraq itself, we must ask what would happen if Saddam Hussein were overthrown by American arms. Who would replace him, and what legitimacy would such a successor regime have? Most Iraqis (and most Arabs) would surely regard the new government as a contemptible American puppet, and it could only be kept in power by massive, long-term American military support - precisely the Vietnam scenario we are most desperate to avoid.

The embargo is undeniably a long shot. Its success demands a worldwide coalition of unprecedented breadth and cohesion. Iran, for example, could punch it full of holes almost on a whim. If the coalition does break down, it would be a waste of time and money to keep US forces in the region in their present posture. We would be compelled to resort to war after all, or else to withdraw the forces already there. But after such a vast military commitment, and in view of President Bush's uncompromising demands, withdrawal would be a political disaster. No one in the Middle East could ever again take us seriously. Out huge investment of money, arms, and national prestige would end by enhancing Iraq's power and influence.

In spite of such problems, maintaining the embargo probably represents our best option. A successful embargo will demand patience, not an American virtue. Moreover, the embargo must be used to attain realistic goals, not to bring down the Iraqi regime. We cannot expect to destroy Iraqi power at any acceptable price, and so our aim must be to limit it. Iraq can remain a significant element in the Middle East balance of power, but it must be in no position to intimidate its neighbors.

Immediate US goals should indeed include Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and the restoration of the previous government there. Moreover, a restored Kuwait must have concrete international guarantees for its independence and security. Finally, it is essential to devise effective means of checking Iraq's drive for nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Saddam Hussesin needs to know that there is some way out of the crisis short of utter humiliation. Would it really ``reward aggression'' to assure him that - after the restoration of the status quo ante - serious talks on the region's many problems (first and foremost the Arab-Israeli conflict) will be promptly undertaken. I offer these suggestions with no great optimism; Saddam Hussein is a hard man. He is not mad, however; faced with catastrophe, he may well take an opportunity to avoid it. We need to give him that opportunity.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.