The United States did not push the Persian Gulf war to the logical end last year because, among other things, it opposed dismembering Iraq, as did its Arab allies. Their fear was that a voracious Iran would gobble up either the Kurdish north or the Arab Shiite south, both areas full of petroleum installations.
But the United States had also opposed dismembering Yugoslavia. Now it recognizes that dismemberment and the breakaway republics. And it stands poised to protect the de facto dismemberment of Iraq by aerial dogfights if necessary, to protect a Shiite insurrection it does not sanction. This is more than the United States will do for Bosnia, which it does recognize.
The order expected today that U.S., French and British planes will shoot down Iraqi planes flying below the 32nd parallel is meant to interfere with Iraq's sovereignty. It brought verbal defiance from the dictator Saddam Hussein. But he moved his planes to safety north of the parallel while sending top brass to supervise ground conquest of the (Shiite) Marsh Arabs' soggy homeland along the lower Tigris-Euphrates waterways.
The U.S., meanwhile, made a show of warning Iran not to take advantage of the strife by moving into the Shiite zone of Iraq, which Iran was probably not going to do. That is the United States' way of saying that it still opposes dismemberment of Iraq, which it still will enforce in the Shiite south as well as the Kurdish north to protect the peoples from atrocity, with no thought to the future.
This crisis comes just after the much-touted possibility of bombing to enforce the U.N. right to inspect any buildings in Baghdad in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. A newspaper story that the Bush administration was using the U.N. inspectors to provoke that crisis induced those inspectors to defuse it. The world is fed up with Saddam Hussein, but much of it also distrusts the motive of the American president at election time.
The United States is right to hold Saddam Hussein to the U.N. resolutions which ended the gulf war last year. Mr. Bush remains adept at knitting ad hoc alliances against that dictator. But the U.S. should be careful that any threat or resort to military action be for clearly stated and obtainable ends, and that it succeed.
Just taking a poke at Saddam Hussein out of frustration would lead to expectations of goals not likely to be achieved -- such as the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is an artificial country of three disparate populations invented by the British in the 1920s for strategic reasons which have since disappeared. But the U.S. is better positioned to provoke its breakdown than to craft an alternative. Whatever the Bush administration does now, it ought to proceed with a very clear idea of what it is trying to achieve. The way to dismember Iraq, if at all, is very carefully.