IN a recent CNN interview, I was asked whether the United States should have gone all the way to Baghdad at the end of the 1991 Gulf war to seize Saddam Hussein and crush Iraq.
It's an important question, since this winter marks the fifth anniversary of the Gulf war. Indeed, critics of former President Bush argue that Saddam's continued presence in Iraq means that the Gulf war was a hollow or incomplete victory. Even Mr. Bush recently expressed surprise at Saddam's longevity.
But the president's controversial decision made sense for five key reasons that US policymakers should keep in mind today.
* First, the United Nations mandate that governed Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm did not allow for a march into Baghdad, and America's Arab allies, some of whom would not even fight Iraq, would have opposed such action.
The US would have been acting without the great international support that it enjoyed during the war and may have appeared to be more of a bully than an enforcer of peace.
Multilateral political action, which a majority of Americans support, was important during the war and continues to be important today to avoid the appearance in the Arab world of Yankee imperialism.
* Second, history shows that states fight much harder to protect their homeland than to hold onto foreign booty. Saddam's Republican Guards, which he pulled back to the Baghdad area for safekeeping, would have fought US forces vigorously in and around Baghdad, thus imposing serious casualties. While Saddam was reluctant to use the guards to keep Kuwait, that was not true of Baghdad, Iraq's capital and a significant center of early Arab history.
* Third, finding Saddam, which coalition bombs failed to do during the war, would have been difficult. Iraq is a big country, and Saddam knows where to hide. Failure to locate him would have made the US look impotent, despite its military victory.
* Fourth, even if the US could have accomplished its mission, what next? This is perhaps the biggest question. Western states have a poor track record of intervention in the Arab world. Iraqis may dislike Saddam, but they dislike US forces even more. The US also would have a hard time finding an alternative Iraqi group to lead a post-Saddam Iraq.
Opposition to Saddam after the war and today is made up of five groups: Communists, Kurds, Islamists, Arab nationalists, and so-called democratic forces. They all agree on four things: Saddam should be ousted, Iraq should remain whole, democratic elections should be held, and the Kurds should get some autonomy.
Beyond that, their views diverge significantly, and they lack unity, experience, legitimacy, and the connections necessary for governance. They would likely fight any member of the current elite for power, creating a power vacuum after Saddam.
Under these circumstances, the US would have been stuck in a nation-building operation - and under fire - for a long time. It would have made Bosnia, where hostile forces have signed a peace accord and where the US is part of an international force, look like a Disneyland excursion.
* Fifth, the security of the Persian Gulf depends in part on balance of power. Iran and Iraq historically have kept each other in check. A greatly weakened Iraq is not necessarily a good thing if it leads to a more powerful role for Iran in the Gulf.
Neither Saddam nor the Iranians are great fans of the US. Iran can be as big a problem for Washington as Baghdad, though Iran's leaders are unlikely to take the risks that Saddam takes.
Regional security is served when neither Iran nor Iraq have the ability or inclination to dominate regional affairs. Marching on Baghdad would likely have knocked Iraq out of this balancing role, at least in the short term, putting even greater pressure on the US to check Iran - an unsavory job.
THE decision to avoid chancing a debacle in Baghdad made sense, as did the US decision to confront and de-fang Saddam in the first place. But the US victory in 1991 did not free Washington of a continued regional role. The US inevitably will have to remain engaged in this critical area of the world.
In the future, the US should maintain a balance-of-power policy. It should let Iran and Iraq balance each other, in order to keep both of them at bay. Meanwhile, the US should continue to support the imposition of economic sanctions on Iraq so that Saddam does not once again get into the nuclear business.
The US won a military victory in the Gulf war, but the struggle to protect the vital Persian Gulf region will continue.