What Is at Stake in the Gulf Crisis

THE United States and its allies stand poised for war in the Gulf. Because war brings grave sacrifices and often unpredictable consequences, it is appropriate to ask what the objectives of such a war would be. By normal criteria, the national interests of the United States in this crisis are minimal. The Iraqi invasion does not threaten the security of the American continent. Issues of democracy that have inspired the US in the past are in the present circumstance, at best, muddled.

The declared focus of the current policy is to fulfill the resolutions of the United Nations by forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and restoring the Kuwaiti government. The policy is promoted in a global context of insuring a new world order. In establishing these objectives, however, the policy minimizes the special nature of the Middle East region and two other US national interests that underlie the determination of the US and its current military effort: access to oil on reasonable terms and the threat to Israel posed by Iraqi nuclear and chemical capabilities.

It is unlikely that the United States would take the lead in the UN Security Council and deploy thousands of troops to preserve an Outer Mongolia from China or a Nepal from India. But, in the administration's public rationale for such actions in the Gulf, oil and Israel have been largely ignored. Despite America's dependence on hydrocarbon energy, the question of access to oil is a politically unpopular cause for sacrifice, and attention to the security of Israel would risk alienating Arab allies. Further, any efforts to deal effectively with assured access to oil or an arms control regime in the region would almost certainly be long-term and exceedingly complex. Yet, whatever the outcome of the present crisis, these issues will remain.

Assured access to the petroleum resources of the Gulf is more than just an American interest. The involvement of Europe and Japan in the present effort certainly stems from their dependence on the region. And the poorer countries of the world, whether in Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe, are the hardest hit by price increases. Yet few seem to be thinking about reducing the world's vulnerability to the crises of this region, either by a combined search for alternatives or by a negotiated international regime that could focus on price and supply.

Obviously, serious obstacles lie in the path of any approach to the oil issue. Once this present crisis is past, oil will likely revert to a price cheaper than any foreseeable alternative. Beyond that is a recognition of the enormous complexity of any effort to assure a reasonable and dependable supply.

Inhibitions also confront those who would seek to improve the security of Israel in the present situation. President Saddam Hussein links agreement on Kuwait to agreement on the Palestine question. One reply to this might be to agree, but to add that any such linkage must deal, also, with the security of all the states of the region, including Israel. This approach attacks the question of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in all countries of the region. Israel, of course, would have to acknowledge its arsenal of nuclear - and, perhaps - other types of weapons of mass destruction. The Palestinian issue then becomes part of a larger framework of arms control.

Impossible? But, then, what are the alternatives? One is a massive effort to invade Iraq and destroy its potential. The costs in lives and resources would be immense. A change in government in Baghdad could present another alternative, but as recent history in India and Pakistan has shown, even moderate governments are reluctant to give up such weapons - at least in the absence of a regional accord.

Times of crisis are often times of opportunity, forcing officials to think the unthinkable to find a way out of an impasse. This could be such a time.

If war does come in the Gulf, the ultimate tragedy would be if, with all of the sacrifices, the present international coalition failed to resolve the issues of access and security that have prompted their effort and concern. At the moment, however, little evidence exists to suggest that those directly involved are prepared to look beyond their immediate objectives to those complex and seemingly intractable issues that lie at the root of the countless tragedies of the region.

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