TWO months after Desert Storm ended, the prewar status quo in the Middle East - in defiance of widespread hopes - is stubbornly reasserting itself. Saddam Hussein retains power in Iraq, still free to terrorize his people. Despite hints of success in Secretary of State Baker's efforts to convene a regional conference on Arab-Israeli problems, both Israel and the Arab states have reverted in large degree to their earlier implacability. And in Kuwait, the Sabah family has swiftly reestablished its nepotist ic, authoritarian rule. During his exile in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait's emir pledged to opposition leaders that he would liberalize the country's political structure once he was restored to his palace. However, neither the emir, Sheik Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah, nor the prime minister, Crown Prince Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, has taken decisive steps toward honoring the pledge.
The emir has promised vaguely to hold elections for a national assembly at an unspecified time next year. But this amorphous undertaking has done little to satisfy opposition leaders, who call for adherence to the nation's 1962 constitution, which guarantees a free press and free elections, and for the prompt restoration of the national assembly that was disbanded in 1986.
The prime minister shook up his cabinet last weekend to express displeasure with the slow pace of postwar reconstruction, but the key portfolios remain securely in the hands of Sabah family members. A press conference called by opposition leaders to protest the new cabinet was disrupted by government officials.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported last week on the continuing murder and torture of Palestinians and other non-Kuwaitis suspected of collaborating with the Iraqi occupiers. The human rights abuses are declining as order is restored, but the security forces themselves have been implicated in some violations.
In a stopover in Kuwait City during his Mideast shuttles this week, Secretary Baker properly told the emir and prime minister that continued US support for Kuwait and its reconstruction efforts hinge on progress toward democratization and the elimination of human-rights abuses.
The US has neither the power nor the right to force Kuwait to establish a form of representative government. But Washington should and must continue to impress on Kuwait's leadership, through economic as well as diplomatic channels, that the American people will not go on subsidizing a mere return to the status quo ante.