HISTORY IS FULL of warfare, and can be written as little else. A school of revisionist historians, concentrating on violent themes in American history with isolationist blinders, replaced one misperception with another. There was never anything peculiarly American about American violence.
But what if the frequency of warfare recounted in the Book of Judges, the Iliad and other ancient texts were carried out with all the wonders of late 20th-century science? Computers, nuclear fusion, missile-delivered anthrax disease and nerve gas make us think that war must be abolished as a human practice. Yet that seems to require modifying human behavior more fundamentally than seems plausible. Technological change, however, has modified human behavior in many ways. Before electricity, who could have imagined the night shift? There is hope.
The marriage of old ways of violence to new technology is what the Persian Gulf crisis is about.
Saddam Hussein has combined patterns of aggression and murder with advanced weaponry that heretofore was available only to superpowers that acted with some restraint. If he fought with rifles on camels, we wouldn't mind.
Saddam Hussein's tyranny and aggression are not unique to him or his culture. He may strike us as a particularly nasty piece of work, but also as a familiar character. We have seen his kind in Europe and in Latin America. Whatever his leadership has gained in modern weaponry is available to others. What Iraq can do, someday Thailand, Argentina or Greater Serbia could do. So the crisis is also very much about precedent.
The reason that the United States made such a big deal of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was not just that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator or is close to nuclear capability or has ground-to-ground missiles and nerve gas and biological warfare or seeks to control the world oil market or threatens to destroy Israel or fought an eight-year war against Iran killing millions for nothing or used poison gas against enemy soldiers and his own citizens or looted Kuwait. The reason is all of the above in combination.
He has responded to the crisis by digging in his forces in Kuwait so that only a new Battle of Stalingrad could dislodge them. That is a war the United States would not fight. Removal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait would be the political objective of any American action, not the tactical objective. Strategic bombing of innocent civilians in Baghdad, however, is something the United States has been known to do.
American policy was spelled out in August. It is to enforce economic warfare to pry Iraq out of Kuwait, and to defend Saudi Arabia from invasion. Were the U.S. to bomb Iraq in violation of that, the great alliance that Secretary of State James A. Baker III stitched together would tear apart.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt says that Egyptian troopmay liberate Kuwait but not set foot in Iraq. Even many Arabs terrified of Saddam Hussein would not welcome the Euro-American priority of using an outbreak of war to destroy Iraq's strategic potential. The Russians don't want military adventures at this time, thank you.
Syria says it will send an armored force of 15,000 men to defend Saudi Arabia. But were the U.S. at war with Iraq and Syria our ally, we would want those Syrian troops on Syria's border with Iraq, mounting an offensive down the Euphrates River and forcing Iraq to divert troops to the northwest front.
When President Bush suggested he would unleash war out of sheer impatience, he was trying to rattle Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bush no doubt is fortified with CIA psychological speculation about the man. But in an open society, Mr. Bush cannot intimidate Mr. Hussein without scaring all Americans.
As congressmen have begun saying, American men and women serving in the Gulf would want to know for what they were fighting. They would not think restoring the Kuwait royal house worth it.
But Saddam Hussein would know for what they were fighting: to take his life, destroy his regime, dismantle his strategic war machine and prevent a monopoly over oil exports. He would worry.
The danger to the U.S. from the Gulf crisis is not merely military. The world economy is being played with. Were Saudi oil exports to shut down, the world and the U.S. would risk a great depression. Already, the Irish beef industry and American investment are messed up by the crisis.
The purpose of American forces near Iraq is not to make war buto deter war. The goal is to make Saddam Hussein's behavior unacceptable, not to emulate it. The Iran-Iraq war is what the U.S. should want no one to repeat, not what it wishes itself to emulate.