AFTER HITLER'S invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, France and Great Britain declared war. The months that followed were known as the "sitzkrieg," or "phony war," with the British and French committed to stopping Hitler, but not quite sure how, or whether, they wanted to fight.
Today America finds itself in its own sitzkrieg in the Persian Gulf. After Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 1, George Bush vowed that the aggression would "not stand" and rushed nearly 200,000 JayKosminskytroops -- with another 250,000 soon to follow -- to face off against Saddam Hussein's legions. At the same time, Bush has said U.S. troops are there to defend Saudi Arabia, and no decision has been made to attack Iraqi forces.
Saddam is not likely to make the decision for Bush by launching yet another attack, as Hitler did for the Allies by invading France in 1940, nor is the Iraqi dictator likely to withdraw his troops as a result of Bush's current diplomatic initiative. Saddam already has what he wants, for now. If George Bush wants to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait, he must -- perhaps within weeks -- choose: sitzkrieg or blitzkrieg.
A strategy of continuing sitzkrieg is unlikely to work. Every day of inaction is a victory for Saddam. He already has achieved his objective: He controls Kuwait. As long as the status quo holds, Saddam wins. And it will take at least a year, probably longer, before economic sanctions begin to force Saddam to think seriously about withdrawal. Meanwhile, the political situation likely will deteriorate, making it impossible for America to achieve its objectives.
For starters, one year from now there will not be a Kuwait to liberate. Saddam not only has annexed the country, but is terrorizing Kuwaiti citizens into fleeing their homeland, and repopulating Kuwait with Iraqis and Palestinians.
Second, as Saddam's neighbors become convinced that the United States will not risk war to stop him -- and that they might have to continue living with Saddam -- they will inch closer and closer to accepting a "diplomatic solution." This may mean a partial Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, continuing Iraqi control over Kuwait's offshore islands of Bubiyan and Warba, or the turning over of some of Kuwait's oil profits to Saddam. Saudi Defense Minister Abdulazziz was slapped down when he suggested a territorial compromise last month; a year from now this may make more sense to a skittish Saudi leadership.
This is just the sort of crack in the international coalition facing Saddam that George Bush dreads. If Saddam accepts a diplomatic solution after withstanding months of pressure from the United States and its allies, he will be transformed into a hero at home and throughout the Arab world. Worse still, Saddam's victory, real or apparent, will send a seismic message throughout the Arab world: Using force against Western interests pays off. Suddenly, Yasser Arafat and other radical Palestinians pushing a "military solution" to the Arab-Israeli conflict will gain new legitimacy. Regional peace efforts could be set back by decades.
Further, if Saddam emerges a year from now with his army intact, Saudi Arabia will have no viable way to maintain its own security. Either the Saudis will have to accept a long-term U.S. military presence -- which will undermine the legitimacy of the monarchy -- or the Americans will go home and the Saudis will be under Saddam's thumb.
They will not be alone. With Saddam effectively in control of the Arabian peninsula -- containing 45 percent of the world's oil reserves -- Saddam, like it or not, will have gained a rough droit du seigneur over U.S. and Western policy as well.
Another risk of delay, of course, is Saddam's growing cache of weapons of mass destruction. By early next year, he is expected to have an arsenal of biological weapons, enabling him to spread anthrax and other diseases to his enemies. With a crash program underway, one year from now he will be within sight of a nuclear bomb; within five years, he likely will have a ballistic missile he can target against the United States. These are the costs of the "phony war."
Real war, too, carries its share of risks and terrors. Americans will die, perhaps thousands. Still, U.S. armed forces -- if free to fight and win the war as they see fit -- have the leadership, training, and hard steel they need to protect their own. U.S. military commanders will not send American soldiers running unprotected into the teeth of Iraqi defenses.