The Gulf War's Credits and Debits

A YEAR since President Bush declared victory in the Gulf war, what has that victory achieved?

On the credit side:

* The war succeeded in its stated aim of liberating the people and land of Kuwait from occupation and annexation by Iraq.

* By upholding principles of international law, the coalition's victory provided a welcome prologue to the post-cold-war age.

* Saddam Hussein's proximity to having nuclear weapons has made many in the West glad Mr. Bush opted for a quick war rather than a years-long sanctions strategy against him.

Such gains are important. Yet there are some gloomy debits:

* A million Kuwaitis were liberated from Saddam's tyranny, but 17 million Iraqis were not. At the end of the war Bush openly called on the people and Army of Iraq to rebel. They did. Then they were mowed down in the thousands by Saddam's helicopter gunships while US soldiers watched. That disparity between Bush's words and deeds is a dark stain on our country, and on its credibility with the anti-Saddam majority of Iraq's population.

* Sanctions against Iraq since the war ended continue to be troubling. Iraqi children are dying. Saddam might be the immediate hammer denying them food and safe water. But the strict sanctions regime the US insists on is the anvil against which his hammer crushes them.

How can we make sense of the differing judgments on the defining military engagement of Bush's first term in office? And how can we deal with Iraq in a way that restores hope and stability to its people? Are current administration leaks about plans to remove Saddam helpful?

It is good to keep some basic principles in mind. One of these is Clausewitz's dictum that "War is an extension of politics by other means." Wars are always fought in a political context, and it is the political outcome - not the outcome on the battlefield - that determines whether a war should be judged successful.

The gravest mistake in White House Gulf war planning was the failure to plan for the politics of ending it. We may have bloodied the nose of Saddam's Army. But have we come out of the war well-placed to usher in a period of strategic stability for Iraq and the vital region it inhabits? We are nowhere near saying "Yes."

Another good principle is to avoid personalizing political challenges. It is easy to identify the problem as one man - Saddam. But to remove tyranny in Iraq an entire system of repression must be disabled. There might be a temptation to find an Iraqi officer to replace Saddam. But such a leader might not be better than Saddam; he might be worse.

What is our central objective in continuing to undermine Saddam? Is it to prevent the resurrection of those troublesome weapons programs? Is it to make good on the promise that Bush held out - by strong implication - to the Iraqi people last year?

Well, guess what! There is another campaign our country can support (but probably should not lead), that might make progress on all these political objectives. It is called "democratization."

For example, the United Nations Security Council might convene an authoritative conference at which Saddam and all the exiled leaders of the Iraqi opposition would be invited to sit together and plan for real, UN-supervised Iraqi elections. Similar strategies of UN political activism have helped untangle tough internal questions in Namibia and Afghanistan. Why not Iraq?

Sure, Gulf allies like the Saudis would not be pleased at such a push so close to their borders. But their political advice for dealing with Iraq has led us nowhere. We can tell them, politely, that we are determined to give democracy a chance.

And how would democratic progress affect Iraq's clandestine weapons programs? Ask the new democratic governments in Brazil or Argentina. When elected representatives get to scrutinize previously-secret national budgets, pouring money into unconventional weapons development is one of the first items to go.

Besides, for Americans and others, isn't democratization the way we think the post-cold war world should be headed? We didn't win it to usher in an age of assassination and violence.

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