Gulf war victory tasted great but felt empty WAR IN THE GULF

UNCERTAIN VICTORY

January 16, 1992|By Knight-Ridder

THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY of Operation Desert Storm today is an occasion to lament as well as celebrate.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains in power.

Iraq retains a dangerous military arsenal.

And a liberated Kuwait is as undemocratic as ever.

Things weren't supposed to turn out this way.

The passage of a year does not diminish the overwhelming victory U.S. forces achieved in driving Iraq out of Kuwait, a success that showed the world it is left with but one military superpower.

But Saddam's tenacious grip on Iraq despite U.S. efforts to weaken it and Kuwait's rebuff of American prodding to undertake democratic reforms show that a superpower has its limits in achieving goals without resorting to force.

The war's anniversary also underscores the fickle nature of American politics as President Bush launches his drive for re-election. The public euphoria and astronomical presidential popularity that greeted the military victory has given way to gloom over the troubled economy at home.

"I think it's a lesson to all of us in political life," observed Rep. Dante Fascell, D-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Popularity is fleeting. You're up one day, down the next."

Last winter, soon after the U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait to end the six-week Persian Gulf War, Bush administration officials had confidently predicted that the Iraqi leader would be ousted within months by military officers unhappy over their humiliating defeat.

Today, administration officials concede surprise at Saddam's ability to survive despite the havoc wreaked on Iraq.

The country, which was ravaged by military bombing, is steadily deteriorating economically because of a continued international embargo. The embargo prevents Iraq from exporting oil except to buy food and medicine for its people under tightly supervised conditions that Saddam thus far has rejected.

Meanwhile, United Nations inspection teams continue combing the country to locate and destroy equipment for producing nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was developing them in a clandestine research program that has turned out to be far more extensive than U.S. officials imagined.

While frustrated that Saddam remains in power, administration officials contend that the Iraqi leader's durability is merely a political annoyance and not a serious threat that should detract from the triumph of Operation Desert Storm.

Administration officials and outside experts agree that Iraq's military trouncing looms even larger one year later because it symbolizes the defeat of radicalism in the Arab world.

This turn of events explains two important ancillary benefits to come out of the war: Arab-Israeli peace talks and the release of American hostages held in Lebanon.

The peace talks got under way largely on terms set by Israel because the United States convinced Syria and the Palestinians -- two radical forces in the region -- that they had no viable alternative but to throw in their lot with the West and seek reconciliation with Israel, their sworn enemy for 43 years.

Although the negotiations have gotten off to an uncertain start, U.S. officials remain optimistic that the new political climate in the region will eventually lead to lasting peace -- a breakthrough that would become the most important legacy of the war.

The release of the American hostages reflected a change of attitude by another radical power in the region, Iran, which pressured its radical supporters in Lebanon to free their captives. The decision appeared based on Iran's desire to end its long isolation and improve economic relations with its more moderate neighbors in the Middle East and with industrial nations in the West.

Ironically, the country the war was fought over has emerged a year later relatively unaffected by the powerful political changes in the region. Now that its oil fires are out, Kuwait's ruling family is seen by many as returning to its old oligarchic ways.

The emir of Kuwait has promised to hold parliamentary elections this fall, and U.S. officials say they are not giving up completely on bringing about political change but are not making it a high priority.

Some outside experts criticize the administration for blowing a chance to launch a democratic experiment in an Arab world hostile to Western political values. "We could've paid real attention to Kuwait," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "A real opportunity to create a new society was missed."

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