The illogic of intervention

Leslie H. Gelb

April 04, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

NEW YORK — AMERICANS are appalled by the spectacle of Iraqi forces slaughtering Kurds and Shiites. And Americans instinctively favor giving these people their own homelands. But before skewering President Bush for not throwing U.S. military power into Iraq's civil war, let's be clear and honest about a few matters.

First, stopping Saddam Hussein's forces is not a simple question of shooting down Iraqi aircraft and helicopters. It would require U.S. military intervention -- probably on a large scale and for a long time, with uncertain results.

Second, if a Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq also means a Shiite state in the south, that arrangement spells nothing but trouble for the U.S. and its friends. American interests do not always call for fostering national self-determination.

Third, new nation-states inside the old Iraq are not likely to be democratic. Most probably they will be dictatorships that will victimize their own countrymen, terrorize their own new PTC minorities and invite foreign intrigue.

The issue here is not Saddam Hussein. Bush will not rest until that monster is gone, and he will be gone. The issue is whether the U.S. should intervene with force in Iraq's civil war.

The champions of intervention want to vastly enlarge U.S. war aims. It is not enough for them to smash Iraq's military power to threaten its neighbors and remove Saddam from power. They now insist on destroying Baghdad's capacity to control Iraq itself.

One day they recommend warning Baghdad against using chemical weapons. That's fine. The next, no helicopters. Good also. The next, no tanks. But even if the U.S. enforced all these prohibitions, the fighting and killing would not stop.

The logic of intervention leads on, inevitably, to capturing Baghdad. While Iraqi troops failed to fight in Kuwait, we cannot count on similar timidity in their citadel. Who will fight by our side? No one. What of civilian casualties? Many more. What do we do after we have occupied Baghdad? And for how long? At what costs?

The goal of intervention presumably would be self-determination. is a worthy one, most of the time. But just as it is beyond America's power to stage-manage Iraq's internal future, it is contrary to America's interests to sponsor Iraq's disintegration.

The Kurds deserve statehood as much as anyone. But a good Kurdish state in northern Iraq cannot come to pass without a bad Shiite state in southern Iraq. Giving Iran and revolutionary fundamentalism this foothold would be a disaster for the U.S.

Considerable autonomy for Kurds in Iraq is another question. Kurdish leaders say now that is all they really want. That is something Washington can help create by tough bargaining with Baghdad.

One thing Washington cannot do, however, is to bring democracy to Iraq -- even if we occupied the place as we did with Germany and Japan. It is simply very hard to imagine democracy taking root in Arab-Islamic states at this time.

The number of Iraqi democrats would not raise a quorum at a cocktail party. None of the conditions for and traditions of democracy exist in Iraq. Iraq has no experience with free elections, free press, the rule of law or tolerance.

We could make ourselves feel very self-righteous by urging the few democrats on and deluding ourselves that would-be dictators are democrats. But such wishful thinking, especially when coupled with a push for self-determination, runs extremely high risks.

Instability may be an abstract and meaningless concept to pundits and politicians. But to many presidents and peoples, its meaning is concrete and terrifying -- religious and tribal bloodletting, constant warring by outside powers over control and a permanent state of anarchy. Ask the Lebanese about anarchy.

How does one balance this risk against the daily reality of Iraqi troops murdering Kurds and Shiites? The anarcho-democrats and interventionists think the decision is easy: Just start shooting Baghdad's forces again and cheer on all Baghdad's democratic and nationalist opponents.

To me, it is a devil's choice -- killing now, killing later -- best resolved by Bush continuing to warn all about the consequences of brutality, but staying out and keeping others out. Our military intervention will not end the killing or bring democracy to Iraq. Only Iraqis can arrange their own affairs, make their own peace -- and save themselves.

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