THE move by the United States and its European Gulf-war allies to keep Baghdad's helicopters and warplanes out of southern Iraq has pluses and minuses. On the positive side, it serves notice that the allies will not tolerate brutal air assaults by Saddam Hussein on the region's Shiite Muslims, who tried unsuccessfully to throw off the dictator's yoke in the months following the war.
The Shiites failed then because, even after the pounding in Kuwait, Saddam still controlled significant military might and because the coalition's mandate didn't include a thrust into Iraq proper. Nonetheless, the Shiites, like the Kurds to the north, were encouraged in their rebellion against Baghdad.
The Kurds were eventually given a safe zone and air protection. The Shiites have been given continual harassment and, lately, aerial bombardment by Saddam. Whole villages have been flattened, and the government threatens destruction of the Shiites' marshland environment and way of life.
The same kind of air cover given the Kurds hardly seems too much to offer the Shiites, who are equally victims of Saddam's genocidal methods. United Nations Security Council Resolutions 688, demanding a stop to Iraq's repression of its civilian population, and 678, the pre-war measure authorizing use of "all necessary means" to restore peace and security to the Gulf area, provide a legal rationale.
The negatives include concern over whether this action could hasten a breakup of Iraq. It would effectively cut Saddam's realm into three parts, with his full control exercised only in the Sunni Muslim midsection of the country. The prospect of a northern Kurdish state and a southern Shiite one gravely troubles Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis, at least, may be equally troubled by the prospect of Saddam fully reestablishing his airfields in the south.
Another problem: What happens if, air power or not, Saddam uses his massed troops and tanks to overrun the Shiites anyway. What do the Western allies do then? They have drawn a line against a ground assault in the north, after a fashion, but not in the south.
Finally, what about the much bigger question of what this operation implies for the world? In backing the air shield for the Shiites, British Prime Minister John Major said the Western powers couldn't "just stand by" and watch in southern Iraq "the systematic destruction of a whole people."
That kind of destruction is happening in a number of other places in the world - Bosnia, for instance, or Somalia, or parts of Burma. Democratic nations, using the means of the United Nations, are venturing toward active opposition to forms of tyranny the world has tolerated in the past. It's a moral, just endeavor. But it will require tremendous resources, commitment, and consistency to see it through.
Are our leaders - and the publics that give them legitimacy - up to that?