What Is Winning? What Is Losing? Is Humiliation for Saddam Hussein The Best Result for the U.S.? WAR IN THE GULF

February 24, 1991|By FRANK STARR

WASHINGTON. — Washington.--Again, the time for diplomacy passed.

The high-speed diplomatic exchanges failed and were swallowed up by the roar of battle. Soon after the noon deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait passed with an angry rejection from Baghdad, allied ground troops undertook a massive encirclement of the half-million Iraqi force.

Again, the baton was passed from the diplomats to the warriors.

As the talking stopped and the shooting started, there were in these events the seeds of misjudgment and the strong sense of opportunity lost. But where did the opportunity lie -- in diplomacy or in war? And which side was losing it?

Even if the ultimate result was to be a final, unambiguous, humiliating and disastrous defeat for Saddam Hussein, is that necessarily victory for the United States and its allies? The answer depends not only on the objectives but on public perceptions of them. Winning in the United States may not be winning in Israel or in Iraq and other Arab countries. And winning today may be losing a year from now.

"There's no clear winner whatever happens in this confrontation," says Hisham Sharabi, a Palestine-born professor of history at Georgetown University. "From the U.S. point of view a military victory need not necessarily entail a political victory."

If a negotiated withdrawal were to succeed, he said, "In the [gulf] area, the U.S. would have succeeded in avoiding a great deal of political damage. The political outcome . . . without a land war would be much less harmful than with a land war."

American objectives were clearly set out by President Bush before and after the war began: the total withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait; restoration of its legitimate government, and post-war arrangements to assure regional stability.

As the war proceeded, however, the vagueness of the objective on post-war stability seemed to harden into not only the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but possibly his death. It included destruction of a large -- but undefined -- part of his military force, reparations to Kuwait and possibly an international legal proceeding for war crimes.

President Bush also made clear the principle on which his policy was based: There can be no reward for aggression. But not rewarding aggression was not enough; it must be actively punished.

A source close to the White House said that a private objective of the administration from the beginning was to demonstrate that "you suffer for aggressive acts. They wanted to give Saddam a bloody nose, to humiliate him in the Arab world. . . . You can't let him have a fig leaf."

If Mr. Hussein were to agree to withdraw on the basis of Soviet assurances unacceptable to the United States, the source said, then the U.S. must dictate the terms of withdrawal.

While Mr. Hussein's death or removal from power would be preferable -- they could not be policy goals -- humiliation could substitute. That could be achieved by the spectacle of Iraqi troops leaving heavy weapons in the desert and walking or riding in trucks or buses back to Iraq, the vaunted Republican Guards first, taking up positions far from the Kuwaiti border as dictated by the the allies.

With sufficient humiliation, it was argued, Mr. Hussein could be presented to his people as a loser, having squandered the nation's wealth and youth in two successive wars for no visible return, having conspicuously failed to achieve his goals or carry out his threats -- to solve the whole range of Middle East problems, to acquire for Iraq the oil wealth and Persian Gulf access through Kuwait, to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons, to see his adversaries' soldiers swimming in their own blood.

"Then," says Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "he is accountable to the Iraqi people. His legitimacy will have been undermined, and they'll take care of it."

The maximalist view of allied victory is found in its purest form in Israel, where the nightmare scenario occurs if Iraqis, paralyzed by the terror of Saddam's dictatorship, fail to remove him from power. To Israel, victory may only be defined by the destruction of the Iraqi military force and removal of Saddam Hussein.

Israel has good cause for concern. There are many examples in the Arab world of military defeats turned into political victories -- the most famous being Gamal Abdel Nasser's defeat at Suez in 1956 -- and Israel has been on the wrong side of several of them.

A lesser-known but equally painful one occurred March 21, 1968, when, fed up with deadly terrorist raids of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, Israel trapped him and about 300 fedayeen in the Jordanian village of Karameh, which means "dignity" in Arabic.

The fedayeen were young, lightly armed and vastly outnumbered despite Jordanian help. But Mr. Arafat, resisting Jordanian advice to withdraw to the hills, elected to stay and fight "to prove there are people in our Arab nation who are ready to fight and die."

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