THE United States is on the path to war with Iraq. The Bush administrations seems unwilling to let the economic sanctions prove their effectiveness, and equates a negotiated settlement of the conflict with ``rewarding aggression.'' The administration touts the period following the United Nation's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to evacuate Kuwait as a global hunting season against Saddam Hussein. But a war against Iraq would not be a global effort. It would be largely an American undertaking with an international veneer. Most of the casualties and costs would be borne by the US. The costs could well include the enduring hatred of Arab masses, directed - despite Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - against the country that inflicts most of the damage upon an Arab land.
Many Arabs already see the US as the successor to British and French colonialists, a supporter of immensely wealthy sheikdoms, and the champion of Israel. Militarily, the US is without peer; politically, it stands on shifting sands in the Arab world.
What's the rush to attack Iraq? The consequences of war could be far worse than the present difficult situation. Why not extend the economic embargo for a year beyond the invasion, until Aug. 2, 1991? If our purpose is to get Iraq out of Kuwait, the extra time could be used to see if this can be done peacefully. And the reported unreadiness of US forces in the Gulf before mid-February could add some time to help us think about what to do.
In recent congressional testimony, Adm. William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said:
``If, in fact, the sanctions will work in 12 to 18 months instead of six months, the trade-off of avoiding war with its attendant sacrifices and uncertainties would, in my estimation, be more than worth it.''
I AGREE. A one-year economic embargo of Iraq would have many advantages. The Iraqi military machine would be degraded, perhaps by 30 percent, because of inability to obtain spare parts. The US would be much better prepared militarily in case the embargo failed to force Iraq out of Kuwait by the end of a year. The delay could give a chance to Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein to mobilize as the Iraqi people experience increased deprivation.
Consumers of oil around the world, especially in the US, would be encouraged to seek alternatives to Middle East oil. It is a national scandal that Presidents Reagan and Bush halted the first tiny steps toward conservation and renewable energy initiated by President Carter. It is past time for our country to give high priority to saving energy and developing new sources.
A 12-month embargo would permit a serious exploration of a negotiated settlement. The US could work with its allies to explore how to encourage a new security system in the Middle East, a system designed to resolve regional conflicts with a minimum of outside involvement.
By de-escalating the conflict with Iraq, the US would be better able to focus on the many other problems facing us at home and around the world. Overcoming the recession. Reducing instead of adding to the budget deficit. Fighting crime, poverty, and drugs. Removing barriers to trade. Finding ways to help the new democracies in Eastern Europe. Working out a new relationship with the Soviet Union. The list is endless and should not be shoved in somebody's office drawer because of our obsession with Saddam Hussein.
If an extended embargo leads to a peaceful settlement in the Gulf, the biggest blessing, of course, would be in lives saved - as well as $50 billion or more if war can be avoided. That way, we might even resurrect the now-buried peace dividend.