THE UNITED STATES is approaching the point in the Middle East crisis where a choice must be made. America simply cannot afford to let its first post-Cold War act of global leadership drift into a stalemate between a war of controversial purpose or the abandonment of goals adamantly reiterated by President George Bush and the international community.
The U.S. objectives have been affirmed repeatedly in United Nations resolutions: unconditional Iraqi withdrawal; restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government; unconditional release of all hostages. Yet the administration has been strangely reluctant to explain how these objectives reflect the American national interest.
Americans must not be given the impression they have a duty to go to war against every evil leader in the world and against every transgression of the international order -- as the world's policeman. The American people need to understand why this specific aggression by this particular leader, if unchecked, will in time threaten their own security and pose ever more difficult choices down the road. In fact, President Bush's August 8 speech defined stability in the Gulf as a vital American interest, like his two immediate predecessors. But since then little has been done to spell out why this is so.
The reluctance to define the U.S. national interest has been matched by vagueness on what means are required to reach the stated objectives. According to official pronouncements, the U.N. goals are to be achieved by sanctions leading to negotiations if possible but, as a last recourse, by military means. These are not successive phases of the same policy, but will prove mutually exclusive. By the time it is evident sanctions alone cannot succeed, a credible military option will probably no longer exist.
To achieve the proclaimed objectives by sanctions, six hurdles must be overcome:
* The sanctions must bite;
* They must be maintained throughout any negotiations;
* Compromise cannot be considered;
* Once the U.N. terms are achieved, arms-control objectives must be addressed;
* The military option must remain intact psychologically, technically and diplomatically during the course of negotiations;
* There must be no other upheavals to deflect the U.S. or rend allied cohesion.
To state these hurdles is to set forth the practical impossibility of clearing them. Upheavals in the Middle East are a way of life. In one recent week, the second-highest ranking official in Egypt was assassinated, Syria battled Christian forces in Beirut and 21 Palestinians died in Jerusalem.
If the sanctions do bite within a time frame relevant to political processes, Iraq is more likely to offer to negotiate than to surrender. In that case, pressures to ease the sanctions will be difficult to resist. Which democracy will want to be responsible for starvation in Iraq and Kuwait once negotiations are under way?
The fundamental dilemma is that the U.N. terms leave no real room for negotiation -- except perhaps the staging of the Iraqi withdrawal. Thus all so-called diplomatic solutions effectively dilute the U.N. objectives while maintaining Iraq's war-making potential and thus confirming Iraq as the supreme military power of the Middle East.
Even if Saddam Hussein accepts the principle of withdrawal from Kuwait, he has already hinted -- and Soviet aide Yevgeny M. Primakov has confirmed -- that he would still keep a strip of land containing a major oil field and two islands controlling access to the Shatt el-Arab.
Would America or the U.N. be prepared to go to war over such a distinction, especially in light of the hints we seem to have given before the invasion that we had no strong views about Saddam Hussein's border dispute with Kuwait? Similarly, French President Francois Mitterrand's scheme for an election to determine Kuwait's legitimate government runs up against the reality that half of Kuwait's citizens are refugees and that the majority of its remaining inhabitants are not Kuwaiti citizens.
Saddam's Hussein's Arab neighbors will surely note that none of the proposals in the public discussion would reduce Iraq's military pre-eminence or restore Kuwait completely. If they conclude they will be condemned to live with a dominant Iraq, they will begin their own negotiations. Recent remarks by Saudi Defense Minister Sultan suggest that the haggling has already begun. But will the psychological basis for a military option still exist after months of such inconclusive maneuvering? And without a realistic military threat, how can the U.S.-U.N. objectives be achieved?