Iraq Raid Shows Problems of New World Dicorder

January 17, 1993|By HENRY L. TREWHITT

Not even Desert Storm was more vividly foretold than the latest strike against Saddam Hussein. Given its limited punitive nature, sages of global affairs generally treated it as natural progression in a crisis that refuses solution. Few tried to find a broader context. But the raid deserves better. It is a revealing snapshot of chronic disorder and the range of claims on the single great global power.

Iraq is the most important strategic commitment among the new ones already accepted by America. But it was the easiest to adopt of those on the agenda or awaiting decision. The nation still lacks criteria for judging when to use force, how much to use and when to abstain.

Iraq presents at least a clear standard of national interest, that often elusive justification all governments seek. Take as a political screen the original mission to redress aggression against Kuwait; the United States did not, after all, send troops when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Then add the obvious protection of oil supplies. Next add the less obvious but more important resolve to deny Saddam Hussein the nuclear weapons to confront Israel. Such elements have driven nations to war throughout history. Yet even today these commitments are only partially met in Iraq.

Frustration in America with Saddam Hussein's refusal to accept the inevitable is near total. That's because most Americans, even official Americans, do not comprehend Mr. Hussein's tenacity, ruthlessness and lust for power.

Even with allowance for popular exaggeration, his record is breathtaking. He has butchered tens of thousands of countrymen -- Kurds and Shiites. He has repeatedly ordered the execution of aides who displeased him, even relatives. Once he invited a general who questioned his strategy during a meeting to step outside for private discussion. A shot was heard. Saddam Hussein returned. The general didn't.

George Bush's detractors grumble that he failed to take Baghdad or kill Mr. Hussein during Desert Storm two years ago. But that ignores the strategic question of what one does with Baghdad after it's taken.

The American mind rejects occupation of a hostile Arab metropolis. Hope of capturing Mr. Hussein was fantasy. As for killing him, the Americans tried to do it with selective bombing in Desert Storm. U.S. law forbids outright assassination. Those who expected the Israelis to do it by now have been disappointed. If it's left to time or dissident Iraqi generals, the democracies can only pray that his successors are more palatable. They will not be democrats.

The result, meanwhile, is enormous baggage in the U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein, original missions aside. Having seized the tar baby, there is no letting go. The revisitation last week doubtless will have to be repeated, with or without U.N. cover. Mr. Hussein shows none of the understanding of Muammar el Kadafi of Libya, whose mischief-making subsided after a punitive American attack. Bill Clinton, who unofficially approved the raids last week, inherits the obligation.

But what of cases in which the national interest is less obvious? What of Somalia? It is easy to say the national interest in Somalia is humanitarian. But that is not the reason of Realpolitik. Starvation occurred elsewhere in Africa for generations -- and occurs today -- without arousing such attention. For that matter Somalis were dying of malnutrition, only more slowly, before the recent political upheaval.

What is different now, besides the scope of the disaster, is visibility. The United States found a compelling interest in not being seen as indifferent. Humanitarianism became Realpolitik. Thousands of Somalis, perhaps hundreds of thousands, owe their lives to American television.

Yet where does the commitment end? First reports said Americans would disentangle Somali warlords by this week -- though that expectation faded quickly -- then leave security to other U.N. troops. They would not try to disarm local gunmen. All that may have been honestly stated. It may also have been stated as tactical disinformation. Americans could more easily disarm the local thugs once troops were firmly in place.

It is now clear in any event that somebody will have to disarm the gunmen, and it is inconceivable that most Americans will leave before that happens. The U.S. public reaction will be telling now that the first Americans have been shot. Meanwhile, add Somalia to the Persian Gulf as a continuing, active military commitment of indefinite duration.

Now what of the former Yugoslavia, a mad brew of ethnic furies in the region that set the match to World War I? It is true that Serbs and, less hungrily, Croats are feeding upon Bosnian Muslims. Never mind what might be happening if circumstances were reversed. Something approaching genocide is occurring --

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