AMID all the coverage of battlefield triumphs and chin-stroking over the geopolitical issues to be resolved after the Gulf war, it's easy to ignore the tiny land whose occupation on Aug. 2 set off a train of great events. But the conflict was always about - if not only about - the liberation of Kuwait. That worthy goal has been achieved. The war will have a variety of meanings for the participants, both winners and losers. For the people of Kuwait, however, the overriding point of the war was the recovery of their homeland - something as tangible as soil and as personal as hearth. One could hardly watch with indifference the televised scenes of Kuwait's flag being raised in the capital, and of jubilant Kuwaitis celebrating their regained independence.
Kuwait's political and economic leadership now faces the daunting task of putting the country back on its feet. Emergency food shipments must be arranged. Water, electricity, sanitation, communications, and transportation facilities have to be rebuilt. Order must be maintained under conditions ripe for looting. An orderly return of exiles has to be managed. And some 600 oil-well fires set by Iraqi troops must be extinguished.
Just the first 90-day phase of the rebuilding effort will cost nearly $1 billion. (The total rebuilding job could ultimately cost $60 billion.) Engineering and construction firms and suppliers of other goods and services in the US and Europe are scrambling for contracts. Washington should assist where it can, though the help will have to be in the coin of advice more than money.
Over the horizon lie bigger questions about Kuwait's political future. Kuwait may again be independent, but will it be free? Will the emir of the al-Sabah family, once restored to power, simply reestablish the benign but nonetheless stifling oligarchy that has existed for years? Or will the government accelerate earlier halting steps toward democratization, as by reconstituting the National Assembly, dissolved in 1986?
Many Americans and Europeans will find it hard to swallow the thought that their troops fought and bled just to restore a rich autocrat to his throne. However, the imposition of democracy on Kuwait was not a war goal. The US, Britain, France, and other coalition partners should use their heightened influence to encourage political reform in Kuwait. But it would be ironic if, in the wake of a war fought in part for national self-determination, the US or other countries started to throw their weight aroun d in the small land they liberated.