Containment, Then and Now

November 20, 1990

What binds the triumphant end of the Cold War at the Paris summit and the menacing crisis in the Persian Gulf is the concept of military containment. It was NATO's resistance to Soviet territorial advancement, not the blustery idea of "rolling back" the Red Army by force, that finally lead after four decades to the crumbling of Moscow's armed occupation of Eastern Europe. Now the question holding the world breathless is whether a new containment policy will eventually defeat Saddam Hussein or whether a military attack will be needed to roll back Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

If President Bush had hoped his current trip would draw support for the actual use of force, as contrasted to a carefully circumscribed United Nations authorization of a military option in dealing with the Baghdad regime, he was destined to be disappointed. Perhaps the most jolting rebuff came after a weekend pre-summit meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose staunchest champion on the road to German unification was the American president.

"Anyone who believes that this [the Gulf crisis] can be solved militarily must think of the end, not the beginning of the enterprise," said Mr. Kohl. "What will the consequences be, how many victims will there be and won't a political solution still have to be found anyway?"

One might say that true friendship lies in candid advice, but it hardly helped the impression Mr. Bush was seeking to project back home after a week of anxious congressional rumbling. In Paris, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was quick to chime in that "patience is needed" in allowing the international embargo to work against Iraq.

Although critics on Capitol Hill have suggested that the sheer size of the military buildup almost mandates an offensive strike, this is not necessarily the case. It may be ascribing greater cleverness to the White House than it deserves, but the fact is that the U.S. buildup has enticed Saddam Hussein to announce he will send another 250,000 men into Kuwait. This could put further strain on his faltering economy, which in a few months might encounter a debilitating shortage of spare parts.

By that time, the United States could begin installing a scaled-down, semi-permanent military presence in the Gulf that would be sufficient to deter further aggression by Iraq or any other rogue regime. Containment is not precluded.

There is little doubt that the initiative for military action, if it is to come, lies with the United States. There is little doubt, too, that the Paris summit will be a prelude to a tougher U.N. resolution. But the momentous decision facing President Bush is whether he is prepared to sweat it out -- whether he is prepared to be author of a Containment II Policy in the Persian Gulf -- that in the end could be as victorious as was Containment I in Europe.

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