WASHINGTON — IT IS NO longer politically relevant, but the chaos in both Iraq and Kuwait is making a strong case for the argument that it might have been wiser to try extending and toughening economic sanctions before launching the war in the Persian Gulf.
Given the way politics is played today, we are not likely to hear much from those -- mostly Democrats -- who voted in January for a further trial of sanctions rather than the authorization for immediate military action. The United States' military success was so complete and painless -- for Americans, anyway -- that quibbling with it can be quickly translated into a lack of patriotism by a ruthless opponent. Everybody remembers what happened to Michael Dukakis on the Pledge of Allegiance issue, so it is understandable if the dissenters simply want to drop the issue.
But the situation in the Middle East is rubbing some of the gloss off a triumph that has given President Bush unprecedented standing in the opinion polls.
In Iraq Saddam Hussein has been allowed to put down the opposition of both the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north, apparently at the cost of thousands of lives. It has happened with the tacit support of the United States because of the U.S. refusal to intercede against the helicopter gunships and heavy armor Saddam employed against rebels and civilians. It has happened, incredibly, in the face of President Bush's repeated public suggestions that dissenters inside Iraq should replace Saddam. Apparently the only dissenters who would be acceptable would be those from Saddam's own party.
Meanwhile, the liberation of Kuwait has proven to be a cruel, if predictable, farce. According to Middle East Watch, a human rights group, the Kuwaitis who were victimized by Iraqi terrorism while under seven months of occupation are now practicing similar brutality against Palestinians and other non-Kuwaitis who have remained in the country. The prospect that a liberated Kuwait would suddenly become a democratic Kuwait has always been a laughable notion.
The possibility that the situation in Iraq and Kuwait would turn out so badly was not, of course, the principal reason dissenters from the Bush policy voted for a further trial of sanctions before beginning a war. The prime concern was that military action would cost thousands of American lives in a cause that might be difficult to justify. It is also true that no one could have forecast Saddam's insane action in setting afire 600 oil wells in Kuwait.
There were, nonetheless, warnings from dissenters that the Bush administration lacked a clear vision of what would constitute a satisfactory long-range solution in the Middle East once the goal of "freeing" Kuwait had been accomplished. And )) there were warnings that the emir of Kuwait was not exactly Snow White. To that extent, the dissenters already have been proven correct.
None of this suggests that employing sanctions for months or even a year or two, while simultaneously protecting Saudi Arabia from invasion, necessarily would have produced a better result. But although the White House and State Department didn't agree, there was evidence -- even from administration sources -- that the sanctions were having some impact after only three months. Moreover, they could have been tightened by, for example, clamping down on air travel in and out of Iraq, disrupting Iraqi communications with the rest of the world and squeezing the Jordanians to close holes in the blockade.
If such a policy had been followed, who knows at what point Saddam Hussein would have either been replaced or would have found a rationalization for withdrawing from Kuwait? His bizarre behavior under attack has made it clear he is capable of immediate 180-degree reversals of position when pushed into a corner.
In any case, it is difficult to imagine a situation in Iraq much worse than it is today. Saddam Hussein remains in power, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, those who showed the courage to defy Saddam feel they have been betrayed by the United States. And the United Nations, meaning the United States, is writing terms for a permanent cease fire without any clear indication of how they can be enforced.
None of this is news to the politicians who dissented back in January. But it is a measure of the sorry state of our politics these days that continuing the debate can only make things worse for them.