Soft on Iraq?


March 29, 1992|By JOHN ARQUILLA

A year after suffering one of history's more lopsided military defeats, Saddam Hussein is still making trouble for George Bush.

His tenacious hold on power in Iraq and his intransigence in the face of formidable pressure to dismantle his strategic weapons production capabilities suggest that the president's work in the Persian Gulf was left dangerously unfinished. Coupled with recently leaked evidence of administration support for Iraq that continued nearly until the invasion of Kuwait, and indications that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf may have been restrained from completing the destruction of Iraqi forces during the war, the outline of an apparent "soft line" toward Mr. Hussein emerges.

But the underlying motive for lenient policies must be considered. It holds the key to specific actions taken during our decade-long tilt toward Iraq, explaining them as a consistent, logical policy of maintaining the regional balance of power. The current danger is that domestic political criticism may drive George Bush off this prudent, if increasingly difficult, course.

Until the fall of the Shah of Iran and his replacement by an anti-American fundamentalist Muslim regime, Iran was our pillar of gulf security. Its sudden shift to hostility and confrontation, after years of being built up militarily by the United States, left America strategically in the lurch in the gulf.

When Saddam Hussein became embroiled in conflict with Iran, our new enemy, it was logical to back him in an effort to prevent the rise of Iranian hegemony in the region. Thus, throughout the Iran-Iraq war, which coincided roughly with the Reagan presidency, the United States tilted heavily toward Iraq.

After the war concluded in Iraq's favor, Bush continued Ronald ++ Reagan's policy of maintaining a regional counterweight to Iran. Efforts of varying propriety were made to shore up Saddam Hussein's faltering finances and to help foster his qualitative military edge over Tehran's numerically superior forces.

That he soon betrayed Mr. Bush's trust by invading Kuwait is less an indictment of American balancing strategy than an example of the fickleness of human nature and of the crucial importance of clear communication in crisis.

Though Mr. Hussein's perfidy must have infuriated Mr. Bush, tempting him to behave punitively, American policy kept to its steady course of preserving the balance of power in the region. ** Iraq was driven from Kuwait with heavy losses, but allowed to retain still-formidable defensive capabilities.

When American intervention to protect the rebellious Kurds became necessary, for humanitarian reasons, action was taken without undermining the viability of Iraq as a nation-state.

Steps are being taken to ensure that Iraq is kept from continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, or the means to deliver them. But similar pressures will also have to be exerted to prevent the rise of an Iranian nuclear capability if the regional balance of power is to be served.

There is every chance that, in the U.S. presidential campaign, Saddam Hussein will be portrayed as this year's Willie Horton. There's even a bumper sticker that combines our worries about Iraq with the ailing economy: "Saddam Hussein still has a job. Do you?"

The nature of President Bush's response to these pressures will determine whether the United States can continue to maintain the balance in the gulf from a distance or if it will have to pursue an increasingly direct role in that troubled region.

Pursuing regional balances is a time-honored tradition of nations whose vital interests often lie far from home. In the gulf and its environs, Britain spent nearly 200 years trying to shore up regional defenses against Russia. During the Cold War, the United States picked up where the British left off, strengthening regional allies to assist in deterring or defending against Soviet aggression.

With the waning of the traditional Russian threat over the past decade, we have had to become especially sensitive to the onset of threats from within the region. Our shift toward Iraq made good sense in light of Iran's inherent strength, antagonistic behavior and hegemonic designs. Furthermore, the latent threat posed by Mr. Hussein no doubt makes it politically much easier for other nations to accept American forces remaining deployed to a region in which they are viewed as infidels.

Let's hope that President Bush resists his critics, for the actions that he might take in undermining Saddam Hussein would also risk the irremediable fracture of the only nation in the gulf region strong enough to offset a resurgent, militarized Iran.

John Arquilla is a Southern California strategic analyst who specializes in issues of Persian Gulf security. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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