IT IS TIME for some straight talk about why 400,000 young Americans spent Christmas in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and why in less than two weeks the U.S. may be once again at war.
We must first be clear about what the conflict is not about.
If we must resort to military force to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, it will not be a war about democracy. While our goal is to restore Kuwait's legitimate government, it is hypocritical to suggest that we hope to bring democracy to Kuwait. Except for Israel, there are no democracies in the Mideast, and there will be none in the foreseeable future. The emir of Kuwait is among the world's more benevolent dictators, but once he is back in his palace in Kuwait City, he will still be a dictator.
Nor is intervention justified because Saddam Hussein is a cruel leader. President Bush has been criticized for equating him with Hitler. Whether he is that bad is irrelevant. He is bad enough. His soldiers are murdering, torturing and raping defenseless Kuwaitis and pillaging their country. He violated international law by using chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds.
But if our policy were to punish cruel leaders, we would not be allied with Syria's President Hafez al-Assad. He ordered the massacre of 20,000 innocent people in the city of Hama in his own country, has supported international terrorism and presided over an army that has committed brutal atrocities in Lebanon. Both Syria and Iraq threaten our interests, but today Iraq poses a profoundly greater threat.
Those who fault President Bush for enlisting Assad's support should remember Winston Churchill's classic rejoinder to those who criticized him for supporting Stalin after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union during World War II: "If Hitler invaded hell, I think I would find a kind word to say about the devil in the House of Commons."
We are in the Persian Gulf for two major reasons.
First, Saddam has unlimited ambitions to dominate one of the most important strategic areas in the world. When Sen. Bob Dole said we were in the gulf for oil and Secretary of State James Baker said we were there for jobs, they were criticized for justifying our actions on purely selfish grounds. We should not apologize for defending our vital economic interests.
Had we not intervened, an international outlaw would today control more than 40 percent of the world's oil. While, by stringent energy conservation, the U.S. might be able to get along without oil from the gulf, Western Europe and Japan could not. What happens to the economies of other great industrial nations directly affects the economy of the U.S. We cannot allow Saddam to blackmail us and our allies by giving him a choke-hold on our oil lifeline.
Because he has oil, he has the means to acquire the weapons he needs for aggression against his neighbors, eventually including nuclear weapons. If he succeeds in Kuwait, he will attack others, and he will use whatever weapons he has to achieve his goals. If we do not stop him now, we will have to stop him later, when the cost in young American lives will be infinitely greater.
There is an even more important long-term reason for rolling back Iraq's aggression. We cannot be sure, as many believe and hope, that we are entering into a new, post-cold-war era where armed aggression will no longer be an instrument of national policy. But we can be sure that if Saddam profits from aggression, other potential aggressors in the world will be tempted to wage war against their neighbors.
If we succeed in getting Saddam out of Kuwait in accordance with the U.N. resolution and in eliminating his capacity to wage war in the future -- which must be our goal if he refuses to get out peacefully and forces us to act militarily -- we will have he credibility to deter aggression elsewhere without sending American forces. The world will take seriously U.S. warnings against aggression.
Some critics argue that we should continue sanctions for as long as 18 months before resorting to force. They contend that even if sanctions do not work, Saddam will be so weakened that we will suffer fewer casualties if war does come.
They are wrong on three counts. First, while the Iraqi people suffer the effects of the sanctions, Saddam will direct his resources so that the Iraqi military will not. Second, while the sanctions will weaken Iraq, they will weaken us even more, because of the political difficulty of holding our alliance together abroad and maintaining support for our troop commitment at home. Finally, the most the critics can claim is that it is possible sanctions might work. It is certain that military force will work. The stakes are too high to risk failure.
Other critics believe diplomacy will eventually convince Saddam that he should get out of Kuwait. But neither diplomacy nor sanctions has a chance unless he knows that if he does not get out peacefully, the American people and our allies will be united in support of driving him out militarily.
Should Baker's meeting with the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, fail to produce an agreement that complies unconditionally with the U.N. resolution, we must remember that when dealing with an insatiable aggressor, a bad peace is worse than war because it will inevitably lead to a bigger war.
If we must go to war, it will not be just a war about oil. It will not be a war about a tyrant's cruelty. It will not be a war about democracy. It will be a war about peace -- not just peace in our time, but peace for our children and grandchildren in the years ahead.
If Saddam gains in any way from his aggression, despite our unprecedented commitment of economic, diplomatic and military power, other aggressors will be encouraged to wage war against their neighbors and peace will be in jeopardy everywhere in the world. That is why our commitment in the gulf is a highly moral enterprise.