THE aftermath of the Gulf war is a new reminder of an old problem for American politicians - the United States is better at waging and winning wars than at the political cleanup afterwards. The war showed once again that the US military is a highly capable organization. Given sufficient troops, resources, and political backing - a combination the military did not enjoy in Vietnam - the Pentagon got the job done, and done amazingly well.
Absent were the logistical fiascoes of recent interventions in Panama and Grenada. A large call-up of reserves and transport of huge amounts of men and materiel went almost without a hitch. Americans' hearts soared along with those of liberated Kuwaitis at war's end.
But the public has been sobered by events in Iraq since then. A still-viable Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein brutally and bloodily put down rebellions by Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north. Thousands of Shiites fled to US military lines and the Iranian border. The plight of the Kurds, almost 2 million of whom have now fled to Turkey and Iran, is well known. The debacle was reported in detail by much of the same press corps that was restricted by Pentagon rules in its coverage of the Gulf wa r itself.
The US government appeared utterly unprepared for such contingencies. Having called upon the ``Iraqi people and military'' to overthrow Saddam, President Bush soon made it clear by his actions that he really meant the Iraqi military. The desire not to see Iraqi fragmented led to a policy that fervently hoped one of Saddam's own generals would dump him.
This was hard for many to take. Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors here in Boston, businessman H. Ross Perot probably expressed the feelings of many when he compared the policy to asking Nazi henchman Adolf Eichman to seize power from Adolf Hitler.
The administration spent days arguing that the US should not get involved with the refugees, and then trying to stave off British Prime Minister John Major's plan for creation of safe havens within Iraq for them. But the public concern brought about by television pictures of pathetic refugees, as well as an on-site visit by Secretary of State James Baker III, forced the White House's hand, and the military relief effort began.
Wars rarely end the way governments expect they will. The US fought World War I thinking it would establish a series of democratic nation-states on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and go home as if the US had no further responsibility in Europe. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's best efforts, the Senate failed to approve US participation in the League of Nations, ensuring that body's eventual demise. Most of the newly freed states in Central and Eastern Europe lapsed into a series of petty dic tatorships, while democracy in Germany collapsed under the weight of punitive reparations demanded by Britain and France. The small young nations were crushed between Stalin's Soviet communism the East, and German and Italian fascism in the West.
THIS state of affairs led directly to World War II. Again the US administration put most of its thought into winning the war militarily, and not enough into the political and diplomatic challenges victory would entail. The result was that the Soviets ended up dominating all of Central and Eastern Europe until just last year. Inadequate arrangements on the Korean peninsula helped fuel the war there.
That Soviet domination ended peaceably and without nuclear war is a tribute to what US diplomacy can accomplish when there is no alternative. Strategic thinkers such as George Marshall, George Kennan, and Paul Nitze crafted such policies as the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe, the twin policies of deterrence and containment of Soviet power, and NATO. The sometimes-impatient waiting for the Soviet empire to falter under its own weight paid off.
But US improvisation since the end of the Gulf war is symptomatic of the old problem. Americans prefer quick solutions, which military intervention often promises. But when the shooting stops, there is always the need to win the peace. More than one nation has succeeded in obtaining goals at the negotiating table or in the streets that it could not win on the battlefield.
A recent Newsweek poll showed 55 percent of Americans felt that the Gulf war was not won because Saddam was still in power in Baghdad. The CIA reportedly believes he is more entrenched than ever. Improvisation will only return the US to the kind of debacle it experienced in Lebanon in 1983. The challenge facing the administration is to prevent diplomatic history from repeating itself.