The Stakes in Iraq

American air strikes and force deployments are reestablishing a fact that may have gotten a little clouded over the past six years: US interests in and around Iraq remain cemented to the region's huge oil fields. That economic stake compelled US and allied intervention to roll back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. To a large degree, it's shaping Washington's policy now.

But oil, by itself, did not define American interests then, and it doesn't now. The US and many of its Gulf war allies continue to have an interest in demonstrating that an aggressive regime, with proven designs on its neighors and a lust for massively destructive weapons, will not be allowed to rebuild its forces and, perhaps, mount another assault.

These interests - oil and the need to restrain a power-hungry aggressor - have a singular coincidence when it comes to Iraq. But they don't necessarily extend to forcibly ousting Saddam and ending his reign of terror within Iraq itself. That bitter lesson has been furrowing brows ever since allied troops at the end of the Gulf conflict were ordered to break off their pursuit far short of Baghdad.

Saddam's persistence in power may even serve the interests of his neighbors, who worry that Iran would fill the void if Iraq splintered.

The US did what it could, this side of on-the-ground military involvement, to protect the Shiites in the south of Iraq and the Kurds in the north. No-fly zones were set up, and the Kurds were given a program of ongoing aid and protection.

Saddam bided his time, however, and when intra-Kurd fighting reached a pitch where one faction called him in, the Iraqi dictator didn't hesitate. The Clinton administration is now criticized by some for not doing more to head off Saddam's northward move. Others, mainly overseas, criticize Washington for doing too much in response to that move - egged on, they presume, by US electoral politics.

The first set of critics, led by congressional Republicans, charge the administration should have done more to bring the Kurds together and to hold the Gulf alliance intact. But a high-level diplomatic effort to reconcile the Kurds failed. They could not, apparently, be persuaded to abandon their ancient habit of feuding. Regarding the Gulf alliance, it was fragile from the start, and developments since 1991 have further weakened its cohesiveness.

Despite the dictator's grim record, many in the region still view him as a fellow Arab getting hit for asserting his authority over his own country. Why no outcry, they ask, over Turkey's new "security zone" in northern Iraq, or Iran's recent incursion into Iraq to aid the Kurdish faction it favors, or Israel's long occupation of southern Lebanon?

Even the leaders of some of the Gulf oil states most directly threatened by Saddam have been guarded in their response to US actions. They worry about nationalist factions within their own borders who abhor the American presence in the region. Saudi Arabia, the keystone of US economic interests, is made doubly sensitive by an imminent transfer of power from its current monarch.

In this environment, the US military response to Saddam must be measured. The doctrine of "disproportionality" should be shelved for now, and political impulses - to outdo the opposition on toughness - should be constrained.

US interests in the Gulf extend far beyond this Nov. 5. Both the president and his challenger ought to keep that in mind.

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