Forget the Ground War, Time Is Running Out


February 08, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. One of the less self-evidently moral tenets of St. Augustine's magisterium on the just war was that it have ''reasonable chance of success.'' But it is perhaps more telling than it appears at first glance.

By this criterion we can put President Bush's first war, in Panama, in perspective. It was a disaster. Last week's local elections saw a derisory turnout of less than 10 percent in some wards. The second Bush war has all the makings of following suit.

Military intervention in faraway places -- Panama, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Suez, not to mention the great colonial wars -- have an almost uniform record of failure. Sometimes military stalemate was followed by humbled withdrawal. Other times the intervention simply replaced one set of insoluble problems with another.

The only two wars this century that were an unqualified success were World War II and the Falkland Islands campaign. The latter because Britain fought over a tiny off-shore island; battle was never joined against the Argentine mainland. The former because Germany threatened the territory on which most of its adversaries lived and because America spent 45 years after the war engaged in a heavy economic and military commitment to deal with its consequences.

If the Persian Gulf war goes on much longer, turning every Muslim regime topsy-turvy as the pro-Saddam pressures erupt from below, can anyone imagine that the present generation of Americans could ever feel strongly enough about the Middle East to give a post-war settlement the energy, resources and sustained military commitment it would need to succeed?

Only a fool would underrate the danger posed by the rising tide anger at the allied intervention pouring through every Muslim country. The overwhelming majority of Muslim governments have done what they can, some giving America their men under arms, the rest, with only a handful of exceptions, their vote and their moral support.

But for how much longer can they hold this line against the gut rage, anti-Christian, anti-American, now sweeping through the crescent of crisis?

The allies' military force is too strong to be defeated. But it can end up in a situation similar to what Britain and France got into in 1956 when they tried to win back the Suez canal from Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. The European powers with Israeli help were doing quite well on the military front, but suddenly, to their great surprise, their political support was jerked away by an America fearful of alienating Arab opinion. Ignominious withdrawal quickly followed. This time, of course, it is the Muslim support that is critical.

One worries about the wisdom of the White House decision makers who prefer to spend their days watching real-time war on television rather than tuning in to the more subtle murmurs in the bazaars and the coffee shops and relating these murmurs to the way history has been moving since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

My guess is that President Bush's coalition has another three or four weeks. (One clue: the television interview last week in which Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak said the war will be over in a month at the most.) All the arguments about a ground attack are irrelevant. The air strikes must either finish off Saddam Hussein quickly or, more likely, the allies must seek a compromise.

One man in the administration appears to understand this and is moving the diplomacy along as fast as he can. Secretary of State James Baker was publicly roasted for joining the Soviet Union in hinting at a cease-fire and a link between the gulf conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. But this is the way it has to go.

This will be the deal: Iraq pulls out of most of Kuwait, allowing the emir to return but holds on to the Rumaila oil field and Bubiyan and al-Warbah islands.

America says we did what we had to do: The planned invasion of Saudi Arabia was stopped, the Kuwaiti regime is back in place, Mr. Hussein was severely punished and Iraq's nuclear ambitions set back a decade. Continued sanctions can take care of the other items of business and certainly will continue as long as he holds on to any Kuwaiti territory.

Mr. Hussein says: I showed them what we Arabs are made of. It's no longer the age of the Six-Day War when they wipe us out in a blink. They've agreed to serious negotiations on a Palestinian state. I'm going to the World Court to prove my case on these Kuwaiti islands and oil field. And next time. . . .

The trouble with the deal is that Mr. Hussein comes out of it a hero, but people will think what they think, whatever the allies do. America comes out of it with prestige reasonably intact, at least in the eyes of still-existing Muslim governments, positioned to roll the curtain open on the Palestinian discussions from a position of strength.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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