The consequences of victory

William Safire

May 02, 1991|By William Safire

Washington -- IN THE AFTERMATH of victory in the Persian Gulf war, we made three clearly discernible blunders.

1. We deceived ourselves by putting our fear of Iraq's national dismemberment ahead of the natural pressure toward ethnic autonomy.

2. We were wholly unprepared for the cruelty of a crumbling regime toward its own people, and for the Kurds' willingness to face catastrophic deprivation in exodus rather than the predations of the ruling elite.

3. We foolishly allowed ourselves to become prisoners of our stated policy (to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait) and thereby became powerless to pursue our real policy (to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's regime).

Let's recognize those mistakes not to point fingers, though that can be fun, but to pave the way to answering this question: How can we apply those costly lessons of postwar Iraq to avoid worse mistakes in the aftermath of victory in the Cold War? If we fail to read the gulf lessons, all three post-victory mistakes will be repeated on a global scale.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin may lock each other in desperate embrace, but the central regime in Moscow is losing its legitimacy as completely, though not as suddenly, as the regime in Baghdad did. The Soviet Union is a zombie nation, an empire of the unwilling, no longer held together by an idea, or an identity, or sense of purpose; it has defeated itself as completely as Iraq did by inviting its aerial destruction.

Economic collapse looms; even the men said to be in charge in the Kremlin admit that. An exodus of the fearful and the hungry is a likelihood; the rush of a million Jews allowed to leave is an indicator of the tens of millions of other Soviets who will be drawn toward an inhospitable Europe.

Political disintegration is a work in progress. The Baltic states are of right independent; other parts of the internal empire are determined to go; Russia and its remaining neighbor republics are lurching toward a looser union.

We are again unprepared for victory. We are so careful to avoid the appearance of triumphalism -- with President Bush murmuring his twin mantras of "mustn't gloat" and "mustn't get sucked in" -- that we risk watching the triumph of capitalism over communism turn into a series of internal disasters posing external dangers.

The first lesson of Iraq to apply to the Soviet implosion is this: hTC Stop treating the union of republics as more important than the welfare of the constituent peoples. Order and stability are not always found in the status quo; on the contrary, when the tectonic plates underlying nation-states begin to move, we heighten the pressure by failing to recognize new realities.

The second lesson has to do with our duty to intervene when a state's central leaders order their army to kill the people. We do not have the ability to intervene militarily in the self-defeated Soviet Union (or in China) as we do in defeated Iraq, but we now know we have the obligation to apply all the economic and diplomatic pressure we can bring to bear.

In this regard, the human rights dimension can no longer be derided as goody-goody; television pictures of "bloody Sunday" and instantaneous commentary have made moral judgment and the force of global revulsion a part of realpolitik.

The third lesson: We must not do in the ongoing Soviet collapse what we did in the sudden Iraqi collapse -- become captives of our stated goals to the detriment of our national purpose.

In assembling a great convoy, even a superpower must go as slowly as the slowest necessary ship; that's what we did in the gulf, limiting our stated goal far short of our real, well-known and avowedly unstated purpose. But when the stated goal has been reached and the purpose is in view, we should not become crabbed by our own rhetoric; we should pursue our purpose more publicly.

Our stated goal in the Soviet Union is stability and orderly change, but our officially unstatable purpose is to encourage the speediest move toward market salvation and the most sweeping devolution of political power.

Thus are morality and practicality, once antithetical, now intertwined. History is just beginning; the last standing superpower cannot escape involvement in the consequences of its success and its adversary's failure. As we have seen in the microcosm of Iraq, when we pretend otherwise, we put ourselves to shame.

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