The War and the Superpowers WAR IN THE GULF

February 26, 1991

Saddam Hussein, in seeking the protection of his Moscow mentors, must not be permitted the satisfaction of souring the American-Soviet relationship as he goes down to defeat. If the Iraqi dictator really intends to pull his forces out of Kuwait under the overwhelming pressure of allied ground, air and naval forces, he may try to put a Soviet label on withdrawal terms that, in the end, have to meet U.S. demands.

Can the United States tolerate such transparent subterfuge? Much depends on the swiftness of his exit from Kuwait, a country he has savaged. But much also depends on how much or how little U.S. and Soviet intentions converge. The two superpowers obviously have conflicting interests in the Middle East, as they do elsewhere, but they also have common interests that have lately prevailed in putting an end to the Cold War.

While Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev tried to assert himself as a mediator just before the U.S. ground attack against Iraq began, his more important role in this crisis was to make U.S./U.N. intervention against Iraqi aggression possible.

President Bush knows this. He went out of his way to say he "appreciated" Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to concoct peace plans even though the White House entourage was enraged. And why not? The more super of the superpowers could afford to be magnanimous (or condescending) as it quite literally called the shots in the gulf.

To American officials who want Mr. Gorbachev to remain in power as much as they want Saddam Hussein out of power, it was understandable that Mr. Gorbachev would seek to placate his military, assuage Muslims and reassert the authenticity of his Nobel Peace Prize. But will Moscow's need for Western capital transcend its desire for the preservation of a rogue regime in Iraq? The post-war scene in the Middle East is still in flux. Baghdad's latest reported move will have to be played out to see if Mr. Gorbachev stays in bounds.

Operating under such constraints must be a bit demeaning to a continental power that once considered itself the leader of a Communist world revolution, the undisputed ruler of Eastern Europe and the instigator of wars of liberation. Mr. Gorbachev's foreign policy supposedly constitutes a recognition that all three aspirations were not only untenable but counter-productive.

Today, the Soviet Union is a status-quo power no more eager to forment East-West or North-South trouble than is the United States. Both nations have compelling reasons to cooperate so they can confront pressing problems at home while preserving what they can of their global influence. The bilateral tensions of recent days suggest the United States and the Soviet Union are still prepared to tolerate their differences in order to preserve their common interests. We hope this is so, but a final judgment awaits the end of the present struggle.

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