What should we do now that we've won?

James E. Akins

March 06, 1991|By James E. Akins

IDEALLY, the United States would have won the Persian Gulf war armed not only with smart bombs and Patriots, but with a solid knowledge of Lord Kitchener's victory at Omdurman, the ++ histories of the Crusades, the stories of Saladin and Reginald of Kerak and their meaning to latter-day Arabs, and a few pocket references to the Koran. We will have to learn fast.

The rapidity of the total Iraqi defeat was surprising, but the

ultimate military outcome was never in doubt. Diplomatic efforts by Arabs, Russians and others to avoid war, we now know, never had any chance of success. By late October President Bush had decided that war was necessary to eliminate Iraq's military capability and its civilian support structure.

The campaign was conducted with remarkably little loss of life -- our lives, of course -- and what did we have to lose by destroying Iraq? There were the small matters of Christian morality, of American traditions of generosity in victory, but talk of them reveals sentimentality and a propensity to live in the past. There are, however, practical reasons for reviving them now.

Bush has just made wise and magnanimous gestures to the Iraqi people. He need not treat Saddam as Grant treated Lee. In fact, there is little reason to concern ourselves with Saddam. He has been defeated and humiliated and will soon be dead at the hands of his own people unless some unlikely country gives him refuge. And the martyrdom he has courted will elude him unless we or the Saudis bring him before a war crimes tribunal and execute him.

His departure, however, will not be graceful. He will try to rally Islamic fundamentalists around his tattered banner and will offer the Iranians an alliance, even a confederation. But they aren't likely to associate themselves with a demonstrated loser.

Still, the U.S. will not be viewed as the savior of Arabs or Islam. Even before the war, Arabs wondered if Bush and his generals were serious in their threats to turn Baghdad into a parking lot. Now they are sure he was serious, and they compare him with Hulagu Khan, commander of the Mongol Horde that destroyed Baghdad in 1258.

Iraq did not recover until this century; yet it became the center of Arab renaissance. It has some of the best painters, sculptors, poets and writers in the Arab world. Its destruction will not be accepted easily, even by the enemies of Saddam. America may yet avoid a disaster. That will require imagination, intelligence and understanding of American traditions and Arab politics -- traits we have not exhibited in foreign policy in the last decade.

Bush's first task is to call for an international conference to address all outstanding Security Council resolutions on the Middle East: Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, Lebanon (and perhaps Cyprus for good measure).

Before the war, Bush assured the Arab leaders of the coalition that he would do just this. He could not state it openly then, as he believed he could not allow Saddam to claim credit for the change in the American position. That is no problem today, and Arabs await his proposals. If the proposals are serious and effective, our reputation as destroyer of Arabs could be turned into that of bringer of justice. Israel already is strongly opposing any new American peace initiative, but the great majority of the American people would surely support a Bush initiative to solve the Middle East's main problem.

If Bush also encourages democracy in Iraq and advances it as our goal for Kuwait and all countries of the area, if he supports a redefinition of Iraq as a "Republic of Arabs and Kurds" with full cultural rights for Kurds and other minorities, he would be true to our traditions and to the America of Lincoln and Wilson, which was venerated by early Arab nationalists. This seems easy and natural to most Americans, but it would be a shift in position for Bush.

At the start of the crisis, he said he was not interested in self-determination. "It's not a question of democracy," he said of Kuwait, "It's a question of legitimacy" -- a view more appropriate to the restoration-minded Congress of Vienna than to the American White House.

Inertia in politics, as in nature, is hard to overcome, and there will be those who will tell the president to do nothing. He will be told that proposals for democracy in Iraq and (worse) Kuwait would offend the rulers of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria, that rights for the Kurds would be anathema to Iran and to Turkey. He will also be told by "realists" that popular Arab sentiment is irrelevant.

Still, it will be hard for him to ignore anti-American demonstrations in Cairo and Rabat. They will be more frequent and violent as reports of the destruction of Iraqi cities and of Iraqi babies dying of dysentery are carried on world television and radio; the governments of Egypt, Syria and Morocco could be overthrown.

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