A Precedent Worth Dying For?

FOR what objective are we sending troops to die in the Gulf? Not oil. We all agree that's not worth dying for. Not to rid Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. That's not even among the objectives of the United Nations resolutions we are in Saudi Arabia to enforce. Not to oust Hussein from Kuwait. It appears we can accomplish that through diplomatic means. But to date, President Bush has refused to negotiate fearing that any face-saving package would be seen as rewarding Hussein for his aggression. If our soldiers die in a war with Iraq, it will have been to set a precedent: Aggression shall not be rewarded.

We are all in favor of deterring aggression; hence, the goal of establishing such a precedent has been accepted with little critical examination. But if people are going to fight to set a precedent, it is worth asking just what precedent we are setting, and whether it will be worth dying for.

An immediate and decisive use of force against Iraq would appear to set a clear precedent. If I attack my neighbor, the United States will use force against me. But it's not that simple. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics. When Iraq invaded Iran, the US rewarded Iraq with years of military aid. And, of course, the US itself was the aggressor in its invasion of Panama.

What is the precedent we are setting? It's difficult to say, but one thing is clear: In light of the sum of US actions in recent years, the message that the US will not let aggression stand has been hopelessly garbled.

For this precedent to be effective, others need to believe that the US will continue to act in accordance with the precedent we hope to set. However, future aggressors know the US cannot punish every aggression with a swift resort to force. The American people won't allow it, and the US doesn't have the resources to implement it. It will be of little use to establish a precedent that everyone knows the US itself is unwilling to uphold in the future. Our lack of response to the recent Soviet military action in Lithuania (a nation whose annexation we have never recognized) demonstrates that already we are unwilling to follow this precedent.

In Vietnam we intended to send the message that ``we will stand up to communist aggression.'' Instead, the precedent set was: ``We are unlikely to engage in a protracted war on foreign soil for reasons that are unclear.'' This precedent made it more likely, not less, that Hussein would feel he could invade Kuwait with impunity.

Using force to rebuff Iraq could result in a similarly unpredictable precedent. If the Iraqi campaign goes poorly, the resolve of the US people may shift. It will be that much harder to commit troops the next time. We will, in fact, be encouraging future aggression.

We should be wary of setting a negative precedent. If the US makes a quick resort to force to oust Iraq, one lesson we may inadvertently be passing along is: ``You need not look for diplomatic solutions when you can use force to impose your will.'' This, ironically, is the very lesson we are trying to prevent Iraq from establishing.

Another negative precedent might be set by our apparent willingness to violate international law to bring Hussein down. A US attack of Iraq or an attempt to ``take Hussein out'' would be lawless acts; international law prohibits either action. Does it make sense to violate international law in our attempt to ensure that such laws are upheld?

While an unclear, unworkable, and uncontrollable precedent is not worth dying for, we do not recommend resignation. It may be within our power to set a workable and more realistic precedent without firing a shot. Force is not just unwise, it is unnecessary. Backed by sanctions, which have already deprived Iraq of any benefit from its aggression, and the authorization to use force if necessary, the US should negotiate Iraqi withdrawal on the basis that Iraq will get no more than that to which it is entitled under international law. We would achieve the objectives of the UN resolutions while setting the standard that aggression will not be rewarded, international law will be upheld, and force will be used as a last, and not a first resort.

In any event, we should not fool ourselves; we should not send young men and women to die in the capricious hope that quick resort to military action will send a message of peace.

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