What role in Iraq?

April 04, 1991

The choice facing the United States in Iraq is being called a "devil's choice" -- you can't win for losing. After its humiliating defeat in the gulf war, the Iraqi military seems to have restored some of its pride as a fighting force by finding someone it can beat, its own people. If the United States comes to the aid of the rebels, it is interfering in Iraq's internal affairs as a sovereign state; if it continues to do nothing, it stands to be accused of

inciting the revolt, then retiring to the bleachers.

Either choice will have consequences long after the fighting stops, no matter which side prevails. To pick but one example: Suppose the U.S. aids the Kurds in northern Iraq and they win. Will they break off and form their own state? Will what's left of Iraq disintegrate further? What country will be left strong enough to balance Iran? And if we support the Kurds fighting for a home land in Iraq, how can we ignore the Kurds in the rest of their national area -- now parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran and extending perilously up to the Soviet border? Turkey, don't forget, is a NATO ally. Are we going to be compelled by logic to support rebels fighting a government we also support?

But if we do nothing, the killing and destruction will continue. In a similar situation, the United States helped create turmoil in Cambodia 20 years ago and then did nothing while the winners of a civil war went on to slaughter 1 to 2 million of their fellow countrymen.

Clearly President Bush, in remarks as recently as yesterday, yearns for a swift military coup to solve the problem. But this is like drawing for an inside straight in poker.

The debate isn't limited to government circles. Two columns on this page bear witness: Leading writers for the New York Times reach opposite conclusions as to what course Bush should follow.

The allies won the war quickly and overwhelmingly, but we may well be doomed to losing the peace slowly and painfully.

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