Partners and War Aims WAR IN THE GULF


January 26, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER

The United States used to fight alongside ''allies.'' Now wehave ''partners.'' We went through World War II in an ''alliance.'' We are waging war against Iraq with a ''coalition.''

With allies, there was a shared passion; with partners, a passing mutuality of interest.

This helps explain why the administration is reticent about its war aims, and about the Iraq we wish to see emerge from the ashes.

President Bush has stated minimal war aims, limited to what the U.N. Security Council resolved. We mean to expel Iraq from Kuwait and restore its government. Most Americans who favor the war effort would say that is not enough.

In announcing hostilities, the president went further, into unilateral war aims. He talked about destroying Saddam Hussein's means of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear. From what has been said on the record so far, the U.S. would be content for Mr. Hussein to continue to rule, chastened and better for his experience. But that doesn't really sound like us. And in the past couple of days, the White House has begun to hint at another attitude. But only hint.

The Arabs traditionally wage limited wars with each other and go on to co-exist. When Morocco and Algeria fought over disputed land in the remote southern reaches of their border, they kept the war there. Egypt attacked Libya, at the border, and never went beyond. But as long ago as 1846, when we had a border dispute with Mexico over Texas, we marched into Mexico City and negotiated from there.

That, presumably, is how the United States would go about a war with Iraq over Kuwait, if left to our druthers. We wouldn't fight Mr. Hussein's war but bypass his army, march into Baghdad, grab the surviving Iraqis by the throat. If they didn't vacate Kuwait, we would make good on our implied ultimate threat: we would teach them democracy, no matter how long an occupation that required.

But the coalition constrains us. We are not alone in wanting Mr. Hussein's long-range war-making capability ended. The Saudis are as alarmed as the Israelis. But the Saudis would never want outsiders teaching Iraq democracy.

Other Arabs still believe in Mr. Hussein. Not just Palestinians in their frustration and rage, but Arabs inside the coalition, who want him cut down to size but left intact. It's what the five North African nations seeking a cease-fire last week wanted. As recently as Thursday, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak called on Iraq to end the war by withdrawing from Kuwait. He was begging Saddam Hussein to survive.

Americans like to have their war aims spelled-out and noble, like the Anglo-American ''Atlantic Charter'' preceding our entry into World War II. But a coalition can state only a minimal consensus.

Wars, however, have a way of redefining the aims for which they were fought. The longer the war goes on and the higher the casualties, the greater and more righteous becomes its purpose. The War of American Independence was more than a year old and the Americans had invaded Canada and the Bahamas before conceding that their aim was, as King George had alleged, independence. For the first year of the Civil War, the South could have surrendered and been allowed back into the Union with slavery intact. By mid-1862, too much blood had been spilled for that. And so with other major wars, including World wars I and II.

It is a guess that the first war aim of the United States is the preservation of Iraq. We will prevent any partition of the country. We will disappoint Kurdish separatists.

Clearly the U.S. means to dismantle the nuclear, biological and chemical war-making potential of Iraq. Many Arabs fear that a demilitarized Iraq would create a destabilizing power vacuum. The United States would make stability in the gulf a diplomatic if not military objective.

Given any excuse, we would require enough pluralism to make an Iraqi regime responsive to the three populations of Kurds, Sunni Muslim Arabs and Shiite Muslim Arabs. (The U.S. government always has higher standards of democracy for enemies than for friends such as Kuwait. Protesters are always the other way round.)

Gen. Colin Powell was careful Wednesday to call the removal of the Iraqi army from Kuwait the military objective of the war. He begged the issue of a possible political objective.

The quicker a coalition victory, the more content the U.S. would be to watch a coup cleanse Iraq of its regime, and to deal with its successor. The more painful the campaign, the more stubborn the Iraqi resistance, the more likely we are to fight into Baghdad and supervise the transformation.

In the past week, you could feel war aims rise with every display of a captured pilot on Iraqi television and every Scud that slammed into Israel. The greater the ecological damage from torched oil, the higher our war aim. The first use of poison gas against Israeli non-combatants or American combatants would, in the U.S. sense of purpose, seal Saddam's doom.

So would a spectacular success of Iraqi-sponsored terrorism. We cannot try him as a war criminal until we have deposed him. A whiff of gas in Riyadh would make the Saudis more resolved than ourselves.

Mr. Hussein can still outsmart us: Declare victory and quit Kuwait, leaving us sputtering in frustration. But that would be out of character.

Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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