Have we spent all our options?

Dan Rodricks

January 14, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

We might already be past the critical point at which the momentum of circumstance and decisions has driven us into a war to free a small, oil-rich nation thousands of miles from American soil from one of the world's military maniacs. A flexing of the American muscle seems almost irresistible now. The president was handed the functional equivalent of a declaration of war by Congress because, by Saturday afternoon, the military effort to extract Saddam Hussein from Kuwait had reached critical mass.

For all their agonizing, there was little doubt that a majority of representatives and senators were going to back the president. With a huge force poised for attack, with an arbitrary deadline set for a military confrontation, with President Bush sticking hard to his demand for an unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, and with the Wacky Iraqi still barking his defiance, how could Congress have done otherwise?

The votes were far from unanimous, however. This was not the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Three votes the other way would have kept Bush from victory in the Senate Saturday. The message there, and the message coming from across the United States and from Europe, was that support for Bush in this endeavor -- as in just about all aspects of his presidency -- is a mile wide and an inch or two deep.

His efforts up till now were worthy of praise. He united the world in condemnation of Saddam Hussein. The effort to isolate and strangle Iraq was working -- despite what the impatient say about sanctions. It was a tough, civilized, even elegant reaction the invasion of Kuwait. But war will be a vulgar overreaction. The president will not be able to hold the anti-Iraq coalition together by going to war. And even if we go to war, it must be short and not very costly -- or Bush will find all that he has worked for since August, and throughout his political career, unraveling in his hands.

The approaching deadline is a monster of our own making. It has a far-reaching psychological effect that will force otherwise reasonable men to make decisions for the sake of prestige instead of peace. Bush has said nothing to diminish the fear that he will act to validate, if nothing else, his nation's military power and its promise to police the globe for villains.

For Saddam Hussein, however, the deadline seems to have done nothing but steel his defiance. He remains as lunatic as ever, unmoved by world opinion, determined to act on some sort of cultural machismo by taking on a bigger foe while the rest of the Arab world watches and, in some cases, cheers him on.

Those who have determined that Saddam is hell-bent for war have to ask themselves a serious question today -- if today is not too late for questions. If Saddam is truly mad, if he sees himself as waging holy war against the infidels of the West, how could a war with him be quick and decisive? Even with all of the multinational force's air superiority, the Iraqi forces will likely dig in for some long, bloody troglodyte war. We will have to kill a lot of Iraqi men and boys to make Saddam submit. And no one knows how many Americans could be lost in such an insane engagement.

You can run through the litany of reasons that have slipped off official lips in bits and pieces -- oil, Saddam's unbridled ambition to rule the Arab world, American jobs, the idea that powerful nations should not tolerate naked aggression against their smaller friends.

We have in our culture the idea that military force is an answer to large and complicated problems -- and that military power must remain a hallmark of American prestige. We still believe that we can have our way anywhere on Earth, even though the lesson of Vietnam was that we couldn't -- and that we shouldn't always try.

But with Grenada and Panama fresher in our collective memory, we are back to seeing military force as an answer in situations, such as the Persian Gulf, where the threat to national security is far-fetched.

Those who believe we should fight in the desert believe that by knocking off Saddam, the world will be a lot better off. Could be. Israel certainly would have fewer worries, and international terrorism would lose a Sugar Daddy. But will the United States be less dependent on oil after Saddam is gone? Isn't it easier to ask the world to boycott Saddam than to bomb Saddam? Hasn't Operation Desert Shield already put a bridle on his ambitions? Didn't we stop him from invading Saudi Arabia? Couldn't sharp intelligence and advanced military technology be deployed to keep Saddam from developing nuclear weapons?

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