On the other hand . . .

Robert Kuttner

February 08, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

LIKE MANY Americans, I have mixed feelings about the gulf war. On the one hand, Saddam Hussein is a tyrant with designs beyond his own borders, against his neighbors. On the other hand, his borders are the legacy of British colonialism. As democrats, his neighbors are no great sheiks.

On the one hand, the gulf crisis was the result of a chain of U.S. policy errors: failing to have an energy policy, propping up

unpopular leaders mainly for their oil, failing to complete the work begun at Camp David, backing Saddam against the Iranians and sending him mixed signals about his border dispute with Kuwait.

On the other hand, now that a shooting war has begun, this history seems no more relevant than the stupidity of the Versailles settlement of 1919 was relevant once Adolf Hitler marched.

On the one hand, Saddam Hussein threatens to destabilize the entire Arab world. On the other hand, the aftermath of the war could destabilize it more.

One runs out of hands -- to say nothing of money and lives.

More troubling still is another aspect of this war, which has gotten virtually no attention. It has to do with our losing sight of the bigger picture, geopolitically and economically.

Set the clock back to last August and imagine this thought experiment. Secretary of State Baker comes to President Bush with the following news:

In the next 12 months, we are going to face not one but two threats to world order, in regions of vital importance to American national security. We will have to spend $150 billion we hadn't anticipated. We really can't address both crises simultaneously. Which is the higher priority?

The first conflict is Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and its threat to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the gulf sheikdoms. The other is the defeat of glasnost and perestroika, and impending political and economic chaos in the Soviet Union.

If Saddam is not opposed, he may well invade Saudi Arabia, giving him control of more than one-third of the world's oil. And his success will embolden radical anti-Western forces throughout the Muslim world.

However, it may be possible to use an embargo to slowly strangle him economically and selective tactical air strikes to neutralize his nuclear and chemical capability, while we bomb his supply lines to isolate his garrisons in Kuwait. It might be years before Kuwait could be liberated, but this would at least contain his wider influence and prevent wider war.

In the Soviet Union, the forces of political and economic liberalization momentarily have the upper hand. But unless they deliver, they won't have it for long. If they fail, Gorbachev becomes the figurehead leader of a new Soviet dictatorship, seething with ethnic hatreds and frustrated popular hopes.

If the West embraces the plans for full democratization and radical economic liberalization, and commits serious money for reconstruction (say $100 billion), the reforms just might succeed, though there is no guarantee. But if we cold-shoulder them, they are almost certain to fail.

The USSR, unlike Saddam Hussein, definitely has nuclear weapons. It has 300 million inhabitants, compared with Saddam's 17 million. Chaos in the USSR means repression from the Baltics to Azerbaijan and risks military dictatorship.

Consider the trade-offs. If we make perestroika a priority rather than Kuwait, we'll have to pursue a policy of containment rather than war in the gulf. Yet we lived with containing Bolshevism for 70 years and Castroism for 30, didn't we? Wasn't that better than war?

Conversely, if we mount a full-scale war in the gulf, we will need Gorby's support, and a gulf war will consume the money we might have spent helping Russia emerge from Bolshevism. Gorbachev will almost surely mount a crackdown in the USSR, and our preoccupation with the Middle East will leave him free to do it.

Of course, history as it unfolds rarely poses choices this explicitly. But in 1990, the choice was pretty clear. In February, Vaclav Havel, who went almost directly from communist prison to president of Czechoslovakia, paradoxically urged the U.S. Congress to help Gorbachev. At the May summit meeting in Houston, the Bush administration thwarted a European proposal for major aid to the Soviets. In October, Soviet economic planners came to Washington, warning that the window of opportunity was closing.

But nobody was paying attention. All eyes were on the gulf. By December, the reformers were out.

Secretary of State Baker is a superb tactical diplomat. He persuaded America's allies to endorse a shooting war that none of them, save Britain, really wanted. He cobbled together an Arab coalition, even though the leaders are paying a heavy price in their own countries, where support erodes daily.

Historians will have to decide whether strong American support for Soviet economic reform could have made a difference, whether Saddam Hussein could have been successfully contained and starved out and whether the cure for Saddam turns out to be worse than the disease.

But my own hunch is that America got its priorities reversed. We and the world will pay dearly for it.

Robert Kuttner writes regularly on economic matters.

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