Superpowers in the Gulf

November 11, 1990

The key to a successful solution of the Iraqi crisis lies in the new American-Soviet relationship. Unless the United States was reasonably certain that there would be no Soviet attack on Western Europe, it would not dare transfer half of its NATO ground forces and the best, most modern half of its heavy armor from Germany to the Persian Gulf. Unless the Soviet Union felt confident that U.S. goals so near its southern border were not antithetical to its own, it would not have joined in the United Nations pressure operation to boot Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Because American-Soviet understanding is so crucial, the next aim of U.S. diplomats in this drama should be to secure Moscow's approval of a new U.N. resolution specifically authorizing the use of force. "You'll see," a carefully anonymous Iraqi official was quoted last week. "As soon as Saddam is convinced that Gorbachev will support a military attack by Bush, our great leader will get out of his precious Kuwait."

Whether accurate or not, this subversive comment from Baghdad surfaced in between Mr. Hussein's firing of his oil minister and his army chief of staff. Close ties between the Iraqi military establishment and its Soviet armorers should not be discounted. Mr. Hussein lives in fear of a coup or assassination, and for good reason. He totally misjudged the implications of the post-Cold War situation that prevents third parties from the old game of playing one superpower against another.

In recent weeks, President Bush had reason to be concerned about the cohesion of his anti-Iraq alliance when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said a military solution would be "unacceptable." But after Soviet diplomats found Mr. Hussein unbudging in his determination to stay in Kuwait, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze labeled a military solution merely "undesirable." Following a meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Mr. Shevardnadze was even more pointed: "a situation may emerge which effectively would require such a [military] move."

That his comment coincided with the announcement that U.S. military forces would be built up to a range exceeding maximum U.S. deployments in Europe was a signal U.S. capacity to force Iraq out of Kuwait will be unmistakable.

It also reinforced U.S. efforts to convince the Soviet Union that since American forces are at risk, the Bush government should retain control of its forces and the timing of their moves even though they are operating under Unite Nations aegis. Moscow is resisting a blank check.

Both superpowers are heavily obligated to resolve their differences and work out U.N. authorization for the use of force. Once such a precedent is set, the superpowers that enforced the peace in Europe as adversaries will be positioned to enforce the peace in the Third World as allies.

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