Achilles and His Heel

DANIEL BERGER

March 16, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER

Nearly everyone is celebrating the return of the United Statesas the world power: We are the 800-pound gorilla, we are standing tall, we have shaken the Vietnam syndrome, no one will push us around again.

Most Americans think that this is wonderful, a minority that it is terrible. If only it were true.

Last year the United States was a sinking power, going down in world influence, not as badly as the Soviet Union, but unmistakably in the same direction. There was one problem after another in the world that the U.S was too broke to tackle as it would have done decades earlier.

Where there were problems that money could solve, other countries had a go at them. This was notably true in Eastern Europe including the Soviet Union. Where governments are lending money, governments other than ours are doing so. The country that flexed power was West Germany, absorbing East Germany wholly on the terms of Bonn's Christian Democratic Party.

Where Andean nations cried out for investment in an alternative to the coca economy, we did not oblige. Where negotiators of Cambodia's future looked for a foreign-aid source, Washington could not be it.

Military power was seen to be obsolete or inappropriate. Economic power was what mattered. Whether cause or symptom, the nation's intractable public debt, private debt, unremedied social ills, made it nearly helpless in the international sphere.

Then came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2 and none of the above applied. President Bush acted with vigor in marshaling world opposition, U.N Security Council resolutions and military presence.

The Arab League had conspicuously failed to address seriously this intra-Arab problem. The Soviet Union, whose influence in the Middle East Americans have long feared, was too preoccupied with its internal crises. A Democratic president would have hesitated, trusting to sanctions against a dictator who did not care how his countrymen starved. No one but President Bush could have done the job. And so far, he has. But a close look at what was done is in order.

First, the United States fought this war as a mercenary. It passed the hat and collected $50 billion in pledges of support, most of which will dribble in. Had the subsidy not been forthcoming, we threatened to call off the war. That is not like the early Cold War days, when the U.S. enjoyed a nuclear monopoly and a money monopoly simultaneously. At the peak of the power, the U.S handed out subsidies to countries providing troops and weapons. It didn't beg to receive them.

American behavior in this regard is very similar to that of another militarily strong, financially over-extended country involved in a war. That was Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, fighting Iran. He went to all the Arab moneybags demanding subsidies to fight the Arabs' battle, and they came through. When he went on extorting protection after that war and Kuwait reneged, he turned on his benefactor, provoking this American war. The parallels between his position then and ours now must be chilling throughout the Arabian peninsula.

Second, we fought this war with technology and tactics designed to fight the Soviet Union and with weaponry being withdrawn from Europe. This baggage proved to be singularly appropriate, thanks to the kind of machine Saddam Hussein had created. That does not guarantee it is the right stuff for next time.

Third, most of the analysis of the military imbalance in the Gulf War leaves out where it began: intelligence. The great break came when the Soviet Union decided to withhold from Iraq the satellite intelligence it would previously have provided. General Schwarzkopf saw every enemy tank move, Saddam Hussein none. That made General Schwarzkopf omniscient and Saddam Hussein blind before the first cruise missile struck Baghdad.

Fourth, the United States had a half-year to put in place the army to fight this war, without the enemy doing anything pre-emptively to stop it. It used pre-positioned armor and Saudi military cities built for the purpose. This half-year would not be available in a war against the Soviet Union, China, India, Brazil, Filipino rebels or other potential enemies that might be fantasized.

None of this analysis detracts from the great victory. It was a great victory. But it flowed from a convergence of forces that cannot be counted upon in every imaginable crisis crying out for U.S. exercise of power. It is an only selectively movable feast.

The next world crisis, at a guess, will call for a sudden profusion of $100 billion to bankroll the audacious but non-violent independence of the Baltic Republics. Europe will come through. Japan will straggle. The Arabians will be over-committed to their own reconstruction. The U.S. will hardly be a player.

Was the glorious gulf victory the last gasp of a declining power, something like the British in the Falkland Islands and the Russians in Afghanistan? Not necessarily. That remains to be seen.

It is up to the United States, its people and governors. If we can wipe out the deficits, reduce the debt, rebuild our infrastructure, bring most Americans into useful participation and restore a competitive economy, the United States will remain the pre-eminent world power. If we don't, it won't.

Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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