Postwar Tolls

THE Iraqi-Kurdish nightmare provided a stark contrast to the red, white, and blue welcome-home party for the troops broadcast last night on network TV, featuring President Bush, General Schwarzkopf, and Bob Hope. American men and women are coming home safe from the Mideast - a cause for gratitude. But the ongoing human tragedy in Iraq gives the Gulf victory a bittersweet flavor at best.

No one will know what alternate nightmares Saddam Hussein would have wrought in the Middle East had the US-led coalition not defeated him. Nor can it be known what would have happened had the war against Saddam been prolonged and more of his military captured - or if allied forces had shot down the Iraqi helicopters that terrorized Shiite and Kurdish villagers.

The war's aftermath brings unforeseen problems. Most immediate is the political fallout over the White House's sluggish response to the war's refugees - 2 million starving Kurds and the nearly forgotten 770,000 Iraqi Shiites in Iran. Inaction, and backtracking on US policy, have raised credibility problems for the administration. US warnings to Saddam last week were welcome, if late.

US postwar policy has, in effect, supported Saddam. He was allowed to suppress Kurds and Shiites and thus prolong his stay in power, rebuild his military command and control, and reassert a psychological grip over his cowering people.

This is not the way to begin a new world order. Fair or not, the question raised in diplomatic circles will be: On what grounds can one depend on US support?

Other Mideast developments have disturbing implications:

The region has begun to rearm itself at a shamefully fast rate from Western stockpiles. Soviet arms sales to Syria continue.

The Sabah family continues to resist democratic reform inside Kuwait, souring somewhat the noble goal of liberation.

One of the more ominous effects of the war may be its impact on Soviet generals. Mikhail Gorbachev's low-cost military strategy - layers of armies - has been discredited by US high-tech weapons. Now Soviet generals, with greatly enhanced power, can demand an expensive overhaul of their weapons systems. It's another blow to the already reeling Mr. Gorbachev.

Finally, US spending on action in the Gulf isn't over. Congress last month appropriated another $16 billion.

More bills - economic, political, and moral - are likely to come due in the months ahead.

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