FOR many officials in the United States, the destruction of Saddam Hussein's weapons plants has now become the reason for going to war, far overshadowing the plight of Kuwait. But while there is cause to worry about Iraq's military capacity, one has to wonder if going to war is the best way to accomplish what is essentially an arms-control function - preventing the spread of advanced military capabilities to potential belligerents in the third world. Viewing the Persian Gulf crisis as an arms control problem raises two important questions: First, could the Iraqi invasion have been prevented if the US and its allies had imposed effective controls on Iraqi arms acquisitions in advance of the present crisis? Second, having failed to control such acquisitions, can Washington now neutralize Iraq's military capabilities without going to war?
That Iraq has been able to assemble an impressive array of modern weapons is beyond question. In addition to its large arsenals of conventional weapons, Baghdad has acquired chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. It is also evident that Iraq has begun to assemble the technology and materials for the production of nuclear weapons. These capabilities suggest that past efforts to curb the spread of advanced military technologies have not proved successful.
However, a closer look at the Iraqi case suggests that it is not arms control that has been inadequate, but rather the will of political leaders to enforce policies already on the books.
Supposedly the US and its allies were committed to an embargo on deliveries of conventional arms to Iraq and Iran during the Persian Gulf conflict of 1980-88, but this did not stop France and Brazil from selling large quantities of modern arms to Baghdad, nor did it provoke efforts by Washington to prevent such sales. In fact, the Reagan administration secretly welcomed these sales, hoping to see Iraq (and not Iran) prevail.
The Soviet Union also has much to answer for. Although Mr. Gorbachev has spoken repeatedly of the need to curb arms exports as part of the ``new thinking'' in international relations, Moscow was selling arms to Saddam until the moment Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Even more scandalous is the failure of US and Western European officials to prevent the sale of advanced military technology to Iraq. As recent disclosures have shown, Iraqi agents were able to purchase parts and know-how for Baghdad's nuclear, chemical, and missile programs from reputable firms in the US and Europe - with minimal interference from Western governments. Had Washington, London, and Bonn taken decisive action in accord with their own nonproliferation statutes, Saddam could not boast today of Iraq's chemical weapons and missile batteries, nor would US analysts be warning of a potential Iraqi nuclear capability.
The import of all this seems obvious: If the major powers had backed up their existing arms control policies with enforcement, Iraq would not possess much of its present advanced military capabilities. Whether this would have prevented the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait cannot, of course, be stated with certainty - but there is no doubt Saddam would have been much less likely to risk a military confrontation with other major powers.
NOW that we face the consequences of our past neglect, can we neutralize Iraq's advanced military capabilities without going to war (assuming that the issue of Kuwait can be solved through negotiations)? The answer is yes - if the governments involved adopt tighter restraints than they have in the past and if they agree to work together in controlling the proliferation of key military technologies.
Modern weapons like those in the Iraqi arsenal require a steady infusion of spare parts and specialized products - supplies that are now being denied to Iraq, thereby sapping Iraqi military strength. Iraq can, of course, get by for a while by cannibalizing existing equipment in its quest for spare parts, but eventually this process will reach a dead end. It is essential, therefore, that the embargo on military supplies be continued even after the ban on other products is lifted, until Baghdad agrees to scale down the size of its armies.
The Iraqi nuclear program can be shut down in a similar fashion. This effort is in fact a multinational venture, with expert assistance and specialized equipment drawn from several Western nations; if these external inputs are effectively denied, Iraq will not be able to manufacture nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. It is therefore essential that the industrial powers tighten up their restraints on exports of nuclear-related technology, and prosecute to the fullest any firms and individuals found to violate nonproliferation statutes.
It is, of course, too late to neutralize the Iraqi chemical capability - also the product of Western technology - in a similar fashion. However, while clearly devastating when used against unprotected and unsuspecting Kurds, Iraq's existing stock of chemical munitions will not prove particularly effective against troops and civilians equipped with protective gear, so there is little incentive for Saddam to use these weapons in the present crisis (and much reason for him to expect terrible retribution if he does). To permanently erase Baghdad's chemical stockpiles, the major powers should withhold all forms of industrial cooperation with Baghdad until Saddam agrees to disarm this capability under international inspection.
Arms control is not a fool-proof system, nor can it produce miracles. But sound nonproliferation policies, vigorously enforced, would go a long way toward preventing the sort of military adventurism practiced by Saddam in the Persian Gulf.