ONE PURPOSE of the American expedition to the Persian Gulf is to deter rulers elsewhere from such aggression as Saddam Hussein of Iraq committed against Kuwait. He must be seen to fail, or more will do what he did.
A good example is the salutary effect that Britain's defeat of Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982 had elsewhere. There is good reason to think that, whatever the other merits and demerits of that exercise, it deterred Venezuela from invading Guyana, and perhaps Guatemala from swallowing Belize.
Venezuela and British Guiana were 19th-century neighbors separated by trackless rain forest containing unknown Indians and minerals. Miners from the British side kept pushing further into the jungle and drawing maps to make it British. In 1895, the U.S. State Department declared the U.S. practically sovereign in the Americas and demanded that bully Britain back off little Venezuela. Two years later, wanting U.S. benevolent neutrality in the Boer War, Britain agreed to arbitration. In 1899, the five learned jurists of the arbitration panel drew the border in Britain's favor. Venezuela bowed to the inevitable, and that was that. The disputed Essequibo tract became undisputed British Guiana.
But an American who served as a junior lawyer representing Venezuela at that time dictated a memoir in 1944 which was opened on his death in 1949. It said that the ruling had resulted from a deal between Britain and Russia, throwing the Russian judge Britain's way. Venezuela used this in 1962 to rescind its acceptance of the judgment, and claimed five-eighths of self-governing Guyana.
In 1970, Venezuela agreed to respect the border with now-independent Guyana for 12 more years. But during that moratorium, nothing further was agreed.
Meanwhile, Venezuela enthusiastically supported Argentina's claim to Britain's Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands in the South Atlantic, which dates to the 1770s. As one dispute flared, so did the other.
Britain was drastically reducing its forces supporting protectorates in the Caribbean, and negotiating a gradual withdrawal from the Falklands. Impatient Argentine generals talked about seizing the Malvinas. Venezuela strengthened forces on Guyana's border and conducted maneuvers there in late 1981.
On April 2, 1982, Argentine troops landed in strength on the Falklands and overcame token resistance. Venezuela cheered. Britain declared resistance, but facts were facts. On May 11, a Venezuelan patrol entered Guyana and withdrew after Guyanese forces fired a few shots. It was no longer little Venezuela against bully Britain, but bully Venezuela against little Guyana.
Venezuela, from strength, sought bilateral border talks. On May 15, Guyana announced military exercises to show defiance.
On May 25, President Forbes Burnham of Guyana said, ''It is true that on our west there stands a neighbor that seeks to make carrion of us . . . dissect and miniaturize Guyana. . . . But we are men, not mice. I am convinced that we have the capacity and potential to drive back the enemy from the gates . . .''
The next day, British troops landed on the Falklands and began the reconquest. The world watched with fascination. Only Venezuela and Guyana noticed the incidents on their own border. On June 14, the last Argentine troops in the Falklands surrendered. Four days later, the Venezuelan-Guyana dispute moratorium of 1970 expired.
President Luis Herrera Campins said repeatedly that Venezuela sought a peaceful solution. But a faction of the armed forces was reported to be urging invasion. Incidents continued. On September 8, Guyana protested two Venezuelan incursions, one by air and one by troops. The next month, Guyana ordered armored personnel carriers on credit from Brazil. Guyana alleged more than 80 Venezuelan air incursions in 1982.
Britain's reconquest of the Falklands endured. Venezuela's bellicosity toward Guyana subsided. By 1984, bilateral relations were warming. In 1987, the neighbors agreed to trade oil for bauxite. A summit meeting between President Desmond Hoyte of Guyana and President Jaime Lusinchi of Venezuela in 1987 produced economic and cultural cooperation. The next year they flew to a remote jungle town to plan an anti-drug campaign. This year, Venezuela's Aeropostal airline began service to Guyana, which agreed to buy electricity from Venezuela. Amicable talks aimed at resolving the border dispute have finally begun.
No one will never know for a certainty that Venezuela would have invaded Guyana in 1982 had Britain not defended its sovereignty over the Falklands. Probably, that is the case. And had Britain been powerless or indifferent in those two situations, Guatemala probably would have swallowed Belize, a similar little former British protectorate, as it twice attempted.
This line of reasoning is, in fact, the best argument in favor of what Britain did. (Meanwhile, Britain finds itself stuck with the Falklands, which it had hoped to unload and which Argentina wants passionately to acquire.)
It is also an important motive for the U.S. in sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia and launching economic warfare to drive Iraq from Kuwait, whatever other arguments are against it. Had Iraq gotten away with this unchallenged, it would surely do more later. So would other regimes similarly disposed elsewhere. The struggle for Kuwait is not over. Itchy generals around the world are watching to see which side has the stomach to prevail.