'Quagmire' or Not, US Must Deal With It

WHEN will policymakers understand that life is a chain of consequences? Doing the right thing or doing nothing leads only to a next choice, often unpredictable, sometimes ugly. Military victory in the Persian Gulf has been followed by the tragedy of the Kurds and Iraqi Shiites. The political ramifications of the survival and possible revival of Saddam Hussein stretch ominously out of sight. The United States, which declared itself rid of the "Vietnam syndrome," now shudders at the sign of another quagmi re. The declaration that not a single American soldier will be engaged in an Iraqi civil war must be reviewed and perhaps reversed. The past turbulent year is marked by failure of intelligence and lack of elementary foresight. The monster who revealed his real nature with the invasion of Kuwait was in part of our making and should have been recognized earlier. The quickly improvised military response was necessary, as was the massive effort to help the 2.5 million refugees. It was better late than never, but an inexcusable factor in the delay was Washington's inclination to consider Saddam preferable to the (unlikely) partition of I raq.

The confrontation with Saddam has entered a new phase. He has survived against expectations, preserving domestic authority and force enough to assert it. His regime is also reappearing on the international scene, skillfully and brazenly using the assets left to it.

Saddam has found wiggle room in what was meant to be a United Nations straitjacket. The UN Charter stipulates that the UN shall not intervene "in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." It makes one exception: "This principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII." Chapter VII permits even the use of armed force against a state engaged in aggression. The UN Security Council exercised this power to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwa it and then to set up disarmament and other restrictions to pull Iraq's teeth for the future. Yet there was from the start an element of paradox.

Cease-fire Resolution 687 explicitly reaffirms the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of Iraq. When Saddam crushed the rebellion that followed his defeat, the world community moved to help the Kurds and Shiite Arabs fleeing Iraq - not under Chapter VII but as a humanitarian imperative. Saddam denounced the relief effort and the protection afforded the terrorized refugees inside Iraq as flagrantly illegal intervention. The US, Britain, and France deal with Saddam's regime as t he legitimate government. So does the UN organization, working in agreement with Baghdad to set up a system for the care, safety, and ultimate return of the refugees to their homes.

A WIDE open question is what happens to the tens or hundreds of thousands who refuse to return. It is clear that sooner or later both the Western military and the UN will leave Iraq, a recognition that gives Saddam a psychological advantage. He will certainly try to exploit it. He will test the limits of Western resolve. One may expect incidents, primarily against American troops: mysterious ambushes, bombs, disorders. While Saddam promises amnesty and democracy, his mukhabarat, secret police, and agent s provocateurs can undermine the Western position. American troops arrested and interrogated a dozen of Saddam's spies in what has become the demilitarized zone in the south. The UN observers do not have even this authority.

In theory, the UN coalition can resume the war if Saddam sabotages the cease-fire, but factually that is inconceivable. Saddam will abide by the multitudinous terms of Resolution 687, studding them with legal complications. His war machine is now junk; the appearance of legality serves him better, especially in relaxing economic restrictions. It is also better cover for his old political aim - however unlikely it now sounds - of preeminence or even hegemony over the Arab states of the Gulf.

One example: Resolution 687 calls for demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border, which has never been defined. The process will be disputatious and unsettling. Saddam could also reappear as the champion of the poor against the rich, a false role that served him well last year. He can play the Palestinian and anti-American card again - more effectively, perhaps, with the continuing Arab-Israeli stalemate. He seems to have money. Perhaps he can rejoin the game in Lebanon against his arch-enemy, Syria. Uncerta inty and fear might be more effective than his defunct Republican Guard.

This is the picture that faces the US on the morrow of Desert Victory. Complaining that we may slide into a quagmire is childish in the world's greatest power that has its toe in a mousetrap. Events have thrown up a new choice: We deal with reality the best we can - or Saddam will.

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