U.S. doesn't want to lose, but it may not want to win, either

November 18, 1990|By Diarmuid Maguireand Kenneth E. Sharpe

The war against Iraq may be a war we don't want to fight. It is certainly a war we don't want to lose. But it may also be a war we don't want to win.

The issue of the potential costs of victory has at last entered American public debate. At a news conference Nov. 1, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces facing Iraq, focused attention not simply on why wars break out but what happens after they end.

He emphasized that the goals for the United States and its allies were not simply the defense of Saudi Arabia and the liberation of Kuwait, but ultimately "to make sure that we have peace, stability and a correct balance of power in the Middle East." Total destruction of Iraq -- "to drive on to Baghdad and literally dig out the entire Baathist regime and destroy them all" -- might not be "in the interests of the long-term balance of power in this region."

General Schwarzkopf has thus implicitly advanced a troubling analogy that few politicians have dared raise: If Kuwait is liberated and Saddam Hussein is toppled, do the United States and its allies intend to leave the Middle East like the Europe of 1918 or that of 1945? The Middle East may well suffer the legacy of a modern Versailles -- that is, domestic instability, economic collapse and further military conflict -- rather than reap the benefits of a new Marshall Plan. This would be disastrous for U.S. interests and the future stability of the region.

Reconstructing a decimated Iraq would be a daunting task fraught with grave risks. The already weak economy, burdened by impossible debts and still shaky from the war with Iran, would be devastated by a U.S. military victory.

The United States has not had the skill -- let alone the resources -- to put a tiny country like Panama back together after a successful U.S. invasion that ousted Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Washington has encountered severe problems in rooting out pro-Noriega elements from the new security force it is building, compensating the victims of the U.S. invasion and revitalizing the economy. Each administration attempt to control the policies of the new Panamanian government undermines its legitimacy.

In Iraq, which is far larger (with seven times the population of Panama) and more complex, it will be extremely difficult to establish a legitimate and stable state and army.

Who, for example, will take responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed soldiers, the bombed oil refineries, industries, roads and bridges? Who will take responsibility for repaying Iraq's multibillion-dollar debt and paying the reparations that the United Nations has already demanded? U.S. budget problems have already prohibited consideration of a new Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe and definitely rule out such aid for rebuilding Iraq. And given their lack of financial commitment to the military buildup in the gulf, it is hard to imagine U.S. allies or the United Nations coming up with the necessary funds.

But why should Americans care if Iraq is completely devastated by war? Why can't we pack up and go home after victory and let the Iraqis pay the penalty for being an aggressor?

If the United States does not rebuild Iraq but simply creates a Middle Eastern Weimar -- the fragile German democracy created after 1918 -- and then withdraws, this poses great dangers. Radical fundamentalists could destabilize a regime that lacked legitimacy and capitalize on a devastated postwar economy. If the United States stays as an occupying force supporting a government perceived as a Yankee puppet, General Schwarzkopf's troops could become stuck in a hostile, violent quagmire.

If we walk away after a military victory,the ensuing instability and radicalization of the region will damage U.S. interests. Many Americans thought that they could ignore foreign entanglements with Europe after 1918, and this approach came back to haunt them with the rise of Hitler in an embittered and economically troubled Germany.

After all, the reason for the intervention now has been to secure stable world oil supplies at low prices. If the United States leaves behind turmoil and unrest, this goal will have been thwarted.

Further, the balance of power in the region could, as General Schwarzkopf suggested, shift even further against the United States. With the release of Iranian prisoners of war and the return of disputed territory to Iran, Saddam Hussein has finally decided lose the Iran-Iraq war in order to keep hold of Kuwait. This was an unintended consequence of the U.S. response to Mr. Hussein's aggression. If Iraq also loses the U.S.-Iraq war, then Iran, not exactly a friend of the United States, could become the most powerful nation in the Persian Gulf.

In Israel, the consequence would be to strengthen intransigent elements on the right and drive frustrated Palestinians further into the arms of radical fundamentalists. This would make even more distant the prospects of a long-term, peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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