When the cheering stops

Anthony Lewis

April 01, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

MILITARY VICTORY in the Persian Gulf produced a surge of American pride that is undiminished a month later. We crushed Saddam Hussein's forces at a cost of fewer than 200 allied lives.

But that is not all we did. The war had costs, human and political, that are only just beginning to be reckoned up. They were savage costs, and they are. For they are not over yet by any means. The worst may be ahead.

A United Nations mission reported on what it found in Iraq. The allied bombing, it said, had had "near-apocalyptic results." The phrase made headlines.

But how many of us have allowed ourselves to understand what life is like now in what was, as the mission said, "a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society"?

There is no running water in Baghdad or other cities. There is almost no electricity. Sewage systems do not work. There is little or no fuel. Hardly anyone can get to work. Hospitals are without medical supplies. Industry has virtually stopped operating. Food is extremely scarce.

"Iraqi rivers are heavily polluted with raw sewage," the mission said. "Pools of sewage lie in the streets. . . .

"The Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if life-supporting needs are not rapidly met."

In answer to the report, President Bush symbolically washed his hands of responsibility. It was Saddam's fault, he said, for seizing Kuwait and thus bringing on the war.

Of course Saddam's aggression began it. But that does not allow the United States to escape responsibility. For the question is whether driving him out of Kuwait required the destruction of Iraq on such a scale.

Why was it necessary to pulverize the civilian infrastructure of the country? To destroy, for example, its only animal vaccine laboratory?

"Does an entire country have to be crippled to enforce a principle?" The question was asked by Samir al-Khalil, an Iraqi exile and author of "The Republic of Fear," a terrifying picture of Saddam's rule. He favored the coalition effort against the aggression but was shocked by the war's devastation.

The misery of the Iraqi people is being intensified now by civil war. Saddam's forces have crushed rebellion in the south, using brutal tactics against even uninvolved civilians. Now they are preparing to do the same against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Here again the United States cannot escape responsibility. For it was Bush's decision to go to war when and as he did that encouraged the rebellion.

Yet Bush's policy today is to sit by passively while Iraqi helicopter gunships spray napalm and acid at the rebels. He described Saddam as a modern Hitler, but he is allowing Iraqis who oppose the tyrant to be slaughtered.

I find the policy deeply troubling. It brings to mind the Warsaw rebellion of 1944, when the Polish underground fought the Nazi occupiers. Soviet forces waited across the Vistula, doing nothing until the Nazis crushed the rebellion.

There are those who would like United States forces to intervene, marching into Baghdad, deposing Saddam and installing a new government. But in the end I cannot agree. I doubt that we have the wisdom to solve the political problems of Iraq. We are not much good at imposing governments on other countries.

But I am equally unconvinced by Bush's easy optimism that Saddam will be swept away in time and all will turn out for the best. At a minimum the United States should be in touch with Iraqi opposition groups.

"The legacy of hate and bitterness toward the West is already mounting in Iraq," Khalil writes in the New York Review of Books. "The only way for Americans to staunch the terrible wounds of war is for them to reach out to Iraqis who want a different government and make it clear that what happens in Iraq now seriously matters to them."

The truth is that the Bush administration went into this war with no clear idea of the political future in Iraq, or for that matter in Kuwait. It had no vision of democracy in mind, and it still has none.

I wrote earlier that it was a just war if not a wise one. I was wrong. The cause was just -- the cause of undoing Saddam's aggression. But the war was worse than unwise. When the cheering stops, the reality of disproportionate destruction and political abdication will remain.

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