Lessons of war

January 17, 1991

Long before the first Tomahawk cruise missile hit Baghdad last night, there was never any real question that the American-led assault would prevail militarily in what can now be officially called the Persian Gulf War.

But the enfeebled response of Saddam Hussein's vaunted war machine in the first hours of battle is almost too good to be true. The success of the air raids, the devastation wrought on Iraq's military machine, the failure of Iraq to draw Israel into the battle, the minimal loss of life are all beyond the most optimistic expectations of the military planners.

All this success could give rise to over-optimism, but it is not unreasonable to hope today that the war soon will be over. Neither is it is not too early to look to the lessons that led to this conflict and to take steps to prevent a recurrence.

The first lesson, surely, is that alliances in the Middle East are very slippery indeed. It seems hard to believe that only four years ago, United States ships were protecting Kuwaiti tankers carrying Iraqi oil from Iranian attack. So we must ask, how long will it be before a new regional power, perhaps Syria, perhaps Iran, will supplant Iraq?

The second question: Once we have restored the "legitimate government of Kuwait," have we in effect created a new colonialism in the Middle East in which medieval monarchies are propped up by the threat of Western military force in order to assure Western access to the region's oil?

A third question: However poorly it may have performed, Iraq's military arsenal, including its chemical weapons, were supplied in part by virtually every industrial nation in the world. Will we ever learn that when we spread dangerous weapons around the world with reckless abandon, sooner or later those weapons will be hurled back at us?

A fourth question: Now that we have established the principle that Saddam Hussein could not "link" a withdrawal from Kuwait with the ending the occupation of Palestinian lands, can we any longer resist the concept of an international conference to resolve this festering humiliation of all Arabs throughout the world?

It would be tempting to think that this war is virtually over, but that is still very much an open question. Let there be no gloating or euphoria over early successes; rather, as we watch this conflict unfold, let there be a sober assessment of the lessons of history, and a resolve not to repeat the mistakes that led to the war.

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