The Stakes in the Gulf

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JANUARY 14, 1991

The Stakes in the Gulf

Ironies can sometimes be painful. I began my political career in 1966 as the campaign manager for one of the first anti-war congressional candidates in the country. Now, a quarter century later, I find myself supporting a policy in the Persian Gulf that might well lead to a war that many believe could become another Vietnam. Such a position is more and more anomalous, I know, in the Democratic Party. And yet I cannot accept, or be dissuaded by, the analogy with Vietnam.

In Vietnam no vital American interests were at stake. The crisis in the Gulf poses a challenge not only to fundamental American interests, but to essential American values. In Indochina the cost in blood and treasure was out of all proportion to the expected gains from a successful defense of South Vietnam. In the Gulf the potential costs of the American commitment are far outweighed by the benefits of a successful effort to implement the U.N. resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait. The war in Vietnam dragged on for years and ended in an American defeat. A war in the Gulf, if it cannot be avoided, is likely to end with a decisive American victory in months, if not in weeks.Sometimes you are condemned to repeat the past if you do remember it—that is, if you draw the wrong lessons from it, and let the memory of the past distort your view of the present.

The United States clearly has a vital interest in preventing Saddam Hussein from getting away with his invasion and annexation of Kuwait. An aggressive Iraq bent on the absorption of its neighbors represents a serious economic threat to American interests. A hostile Iraq armed with chemical, biological, and eventually nuclear weapons represents a "clear and present danger" to American security. And a lawless Iraq represents a direct challenge to our hopes for a new and more peaceful world order. Any one of these reasons would be sufficient to justify a firm American response to this brutal and unprovoked act of aggression. Together they make a compelling case for doing whatever needs to be done, in concert with our coalition partners, to secure the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and to establish a more stable balance of power in one of the most volatile and strategically important parts of the world.

There is, for a start, the question of oil. If Saddam succeeds in incorporating Kuwait into Iraq, he will be in a position to control, by intimidation or invasion, the oil resources of the entire Gulf. This would enable him, and him alone, to determine not only the price, but also the production levels, of up to half the proven oil reserves in the world. This is not simply a question of the price of gas at the pump.It is a matter of the availability of the essential energy that we and our friends around the world need to heat our homes, fuel our factories, and keep our economies vigorous.

The United States needs a comprehensive energy policy that will reduce our dependence on Gulf oil.This was obvious at the time of the 1973 oil embargo, and it is obvious today. But regret at our failure to have diminished our dependence on Gulf oil, and our resolve to diminish that dependence in the future, will not solve our problem now. Even if we no longer needed to import oil, most other countries would still persist in their dependence; and to the extent that our economic well-being is linked to theirs, we cannot expect to insulate ourselves from the consequences of a cutoff in this essential source of supply.

Some have argued that Saddam's control of the oil resources of the Gulf would not pose an unacceptable threat to American interests, since he would presumably wish to sell the oil in order to raise revenues for his benign and malignant purposes. But Saddam would also be in a position to cut back dramatically on production, which would give him considerable leverage over the rest of the world, while assuring, through the inflated prices that his reduced production would command, an adequate level of revenue. It would be unthinkable for the United States to permit a rampaging dictator like Saddam to have his hands on the economic jugular of the world.

Far more important than the question of oil, however, is the extent to which, in American constitutional terms, Saddam is a "clear and present danger." This is a man who twice in the last decade has led his country into war, first against Iran in 1980, and then against Kuwait in 1990. Driven by an uncontrollable appetite for power, and by the ideological imperatives of the Baath party, which is committed to unifying the Arab nation under Iraqi control, he is determined to dominate the entire Middle East. President Bush's parallels between Saddam and Hitler are wildly overdrawn. But if there are fundamental differences between Saddam and Hitler, there are also instructive similarities. Like Hitler, Saddam has an unappeasable will to power combined with a ruthless willingness to employ whatever means are necessary to achieve it.

Having stood up to the combined opposition of the superpowers, the Security Council, and the Arab League, Saddam's sense of invincibility will certainly swell—and the stage would be set for more campaigns of conquest and annexation. Moreover, if Saddam prevails in the current crisis, he might eventually pose a direct threat to the United States itself; it would be unacceptable to live in the shadow of an irrational man's nuclear arsenal, even if it is much smaller than our own. Iraq has remorselessly pursued a variety of long-range weapons programs that cannot be justified by any legitimate defensive needs. In addition to its nuclear program, Iraq is now working on an intercontinental ballistic missile system. Saddam is probably not in a position to produce a nuclear weapon within the next year, but he may well be able to do so in five to ten years. If we do not stop him now, we will almost certainly be obligated to confront him later, when he will be chillingly more formidable.

How, in the context of a political resolution of the Gulf crisis, can we deal with the threat of Iraq's destabilizing weapons of mass destruction? Ironically, they will pose less of a problem if it should come to war, since Baghdad's chemical, biological, and nuclear facilities would be high-priority targets, and its capacity to use these instruments of demonic destruction would be crippled for a long time to come.There is a real danger, however, that a peaceful resolution of the crisis would leave Saddam with his terrible arsenal intact, and his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons proceeding apace. Such an outcome would be a Pyrrhic victory. The Bush administration has so far failed to accord this problem the priority it deserves.

Some will point out that we have lived for many decades with other countries possessing such weapons and have not felt compelled to insist upon their dismantlement. Why should we be any more concerned about the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iraq than by Pakistan, India, Brazil, Argentina, or South Africa? The answer is that although the nuclear programs of these other countries are a source of legitimate concern, none of them has already used weapons of mass destruction. Apologists for Iraq have argued further that our anxieties are misplaced, inasmuch as Iraq is a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; but Baghdad used chemical weapons in spite of its signature on the treaty prohibiting their use. In the matter of treaties, Iraq is not exactly to be trusted; and an accomplished sinner like Saddam will not be overly tormented by breaking his own word.

Still others have suggested that Iraq will not be able to develop nuclear weapons without the type of assistance that has been cut off by the sanctions. This argument fails on a number of counts. First, it assumes that the sanctions will remain in effect in perpetuity. Second, it ignores the fact that our failure to prevent Pakistan from acquiring the components for its nuclear weapons program shows that a strategy of technological denial is not likely to succeed. Third, it turns a blind eye to the chemical weapons and biological agents already in Iraq's arsenal. Fourth, there is no doubt that Iraq has already obtained sufficient fissile material from both its operable reactor and the destroyed Osirak reactor to build several nuclear weapons, even without outside assistance, in the next ten years. The Iraqi nuclear program is too far along to be stopped by an economic embargo.

Had it not been for the Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981, Iraq would in all likelihood already have nuclear weapons. Indeed, many of those who criticized the Israeli raid at the time now recognize how fortunate it was for the entire region that the Israelis acted so decisively. If Israel had heeded the advice of the timid, Iraq would likely have used nuclear weapons in its war against Iran.Put starkly, there can be no prospect for long-term stability in the Gulf unless Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are dismantled or destroyed. The only question is one of means.

It is conceivable that Saddam can be persuaded to disarm himself of these weapons, if the United States and its coalition partners make it clear that this is an essential component of a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The international community should spell out its determination to maintain the sanctions in force—even if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait and complies with the other conditions of the various U.N. resolutions—until Baghdad agrees to dismantle the weapons. Still, we must recognize that this strategy may fail—in which case the United States must retain its option to use force to eliminate both the production centers for these weapons and their long-range delivery systems. This policy will enjoy the strong support of many of our partners, including a number of Arab countries. On two recent trips to the region I was struck by the great fear of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the recognition of the necessity of eliminating this non-conventional threat by whatever means are required.

The third reason for thwarting Saddam's ambitions lies in our hopes for the establishment of a new world order. How we resolve the first crisis of the post-cold war world will have profound historical consequences. Will this be a world in which relations among nations are governed by the rule of law, or will it be a Hobbesian world? Will it be a world in which the strong continue to dominate the weak, or will considerations of justice prevail over realities of force? Had the world responded with collective action when Japan invaded Manchuria, when Italy invaded Abyssinia, and when Hitler occupied the Rhineland, we might have been spared some of history's worst horrors. If we succeed in our efforts to secure the withdrawal of Iraqi forces and the restoration of the legitimate government of Kuwait through concerted international action, we will have created a powerful precedent for a much more peaceful world in the future. But if Saddam prevails, the word will have gone out to despots around the globe that the old rules still apply, that aggression still pays.

Kuwait is being devoured before our eyes. Newborn infants have been snatched out of incubators and left to die so the incubators can be carted back to hospitals in Baghdad. Thousands of Kuwaitis have been killed. Pregnant women have been bayoneted. Men have had their eyeballs burned out by cigarettes. Within a matter of months, Kuwait will have ceased to exist, the Kuwaitis having been murdered or exiled and the physical infrastructure of their country having been dismantled or destroyed. The failure of the United States and the international community to respond to previous acts of aggression is hardly a reason for not standing up to the man who is guilty of this one. The bitter fate that has befallen Kuwait should also lead the coalition of nations that has rallied to Kuwait's defense to require that Iraq pay full compensation for the havoc it has wrought. Baghdad's invasion was also the biggest bank heist in history; and if Iraq is not compelled to pay compensation, it will have been a handsome day's work for Saddam.

This crisis provides a rare opportunity, perhaps the first since the dawn of the modern age, to create a world order in which the international community upholds the sanctity of existing borders and the principle that nations should not be permitted to invade and to annex their weaker neighbors. The overwhelming votes in the U.N. Security Council demonstrate that there is, at last, an international consensus in favor of this objective. They also suggest that the dream of Franklin Roosevelt and the other founders of the United Nations, that the world organization could be used by the great powers as a mechanism for the preservation of peace, is being realized.

How shall we accomplish these essential objectives in a way that is consistent with our interests and compatible with our values? A national debate, stimulated by a series of hearings in the House and the Senate, has already begun. It would appear that there are, broadly speaking, three ways in which the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, the restoration of the legitimate government in Kuwait, the payment of compensation to the victims of this aggression, and the establishment of a more stable balance of power in the region can be achieved.

The first is through the continued and perhaps protracted application of sanctions. Admiral William Crowe and General David Jones, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, have argued that we should be willing to give sanctions a chance. If we wait another six, twelve, or eighteen months, they contend, the sanctions are likely to compel an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait."What's the rush?" asks The New York Times. By waiting a little longer, these critics of the president's policy maintain, we can achieve our objectives without a war.

Of course it would be better to give sanctions more of a chance to work, if there is any reasonable possibility that they will bring about an Iraqi withdrawal, rather than take our troops to war. Nobody views with equanimity the loss of lives that an armed conflict would entail. And the supporters of a "go-slow" policy have rightly pointed out that the sanctions have received an unprecedented degree of support from the international community. All of Iraq's oil exports, which provided 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, have been cut off, and Iraq is clearly beginning to feel the economic consequences of its international isolation. Its factories are shutting down. Its productive capabilities have been impaired.

And yet it is difficult to be optimistic about the success of the sanctions. According to the detailed analysis by the International Institute for Economics of the likely impact of sanctions on Iraq, the embargo should bring about a reduction of approximately 40 percent in Iraq's gross national product.This will undoubtedly be a very serious blow to the Iraqi economy. But whether it will result in a withdrawal from Kuwait is another matter. Even Crowe, whose testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee provided political legitimacy to the "go-slow" strategy, has said that his judgment on the efficacy of sanctions is "entirely speculative."

Iraq is a fertile country, and it will be able to feed itself. The smuggling of food and other essential items is already taking place across the Iranian, Jordanian, Turkish, and Syrian borders, and Iraq will be able to adjust as the economic pinch tightens. If the analysts are correct, the per capita income of Iraq will be reduced from approximately $2,600 to $1,600 a year. Even with its 40 percent reduction, however, Iraq will still have a per capita income more than twice that of Egypt, for instance, and substantially larger than that of Turkey, another of the front-line states. In any case, even if his people have to accept a less filling and nutritious diet, Saddam and his military will surely have enough to eat. This man was willing to persist in his war against Iran despite a million Iraqi casualties. It is hard to believe that he will be willing to withdraw from Kuwait simply because the Iraqi people will be forced to reduce their caloric intake or accept a diminution in their standard of living.

On the military side, there is no doubt that the sanctions are having an impact. As CIA Director William Webster told Congress, the international economic boycott is likely to affect seriously the Iraqi air force within ninety days, and to degrade to a somewhat lesser extent other Iraqi forces over a period of nine to twelve months. Even so, the consensus among military experts is that even after a full year of sanctions, the capacity of the Iraqi forces in Kuwait to defend themselves will not be appreciably diminished. Most analysts believe that Saddam has written off his air force, given the vast air superiority enjoyed by the United States and its partners. The components of his military machine that constitute the core of his power -- infantry, artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles already deployed in Kuwait -- are precisely those that would be least affected by an extended embargo. The protracted application of sanctions will give the Iraqis time, moreover, to dig in and build up their defenses, to construct more roads and water-carrying pipelines from Iraq to Kuwait, thereby making an assault against them more costly in American lives.

Those who argue that sanctions without the use of force will be sufficient to compel an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait have never explained precisely how an embargo is likely to produce this result.They have failed to establish the connection between the undoubted economic impact of the sanctions and a political decision to quit Kuwait. There would appear to be only two ways in which sanctions can produce an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the other concessions necessary to end the crisis satisfactorily: either Saddam will decide to withdraw from Kuwait, or he will be overthrown by his own military and replaced by a leader (or a junta) that would make this decision.

But what are the chances, assuming the sanctions are maintained for another six to twelve months, or even longer, that Saddam will be willing to withdraw from Kuwait? He does not have to worry, after all, about running for re-election, or about a contentious Congress, or about a critical press, or about declining approval ratings in the polls. And no one can seriously believe that Saddam is more concerned about the well-being of his people than he is about the maximization of his power. This is not a sentimental man. Saddam is likely to calculate that it is a matter of time before the coalition crumbles and the sanctions erode. If all he has to worry about is the continued application of sanctions, he is much more likely to tough it out.

This leaves the possibility of an overthrow of Saddam by his military. There must be many officers in the Iraqi army who understand that Saddam is leading them down the desert dunes to disaster and would dearly like to remove him. But Saddam has managed to stifle any stirring of discontent not only in his people, but especially in his military establishment. The armed forces are riddled with informers; and Saddam has demonstrated repeatedly that he will act with extraordinary ruthlessness against anyone whom he even suspects of plotting against him. Those who run afoul of his paranoia do not live to enjoy their own.

Thus it would appear that the prospects for the success of the sanctions are less likely than the prospects for the collapse of the coalition if we wait for the sanctions to be given more time to work.The coalition that President Bush has assembled with such skill is a fractious and fragile grouping, in which the Arab members in particular have different interests than we do. The incident on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem this fall was a clear warning about the flammability of this part of the world. The cultural repercussions of political events could easily destroy the coalition. And surely that is precisely what Saddam, a Machiavellian manipulator of men and events, will attempt to achieve.

Nor will the pressures on the coalition come only from abroad. Once it becomes clear that Bush has opted for the prolonged application of sanctions, there will be strong demands to start bringing back many of the troops that we have sent to Saudi Arabia. Four hundred thousand soldiers are not necessary, if our sole purpose is to defend Saudi Arabia. And it will be very difficult to sustain such a massive presence in Saudi Arabia indefinitely, given the logistical requirements of such a deployment.Once we begin to withdraw forces from the Gulf, our coalition partners, most of whom believe that sanctions alone cannot induce Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, are likely to conclude that it will be only a matter of time before Saddam prevails. At that point they will begin cutting their own deals, in anticipation of emerging regional realities.

Even if the coalition were to hold together while we waited for the sanctions to work, the chances are that by the time we concluded—say, a year or two from now—that they were not sufficient to induce Saddam to withdraw, we would have lost our will to use force. While some who have urged the president to give sanctions more of a chance to work have said that they would be prepared to support the use of force if the sanctions fail, the truth is that the great majority of those who favor waiting would still oppose a war against Iraq even if the sanctions failed to achieve an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. And with the sanctions eroding, and the use of force no longer a politically viable option, Saddam would be well on his way to a victory. A "go-slow" strategy, then, is more likely to play into the hands of Saddam than to deliver him into the hands of the coalition arrayed against him.

For those who believe that there are no differences among nations that cannot be resolved diplomatically, there is always the hope of a negotiated settlement. But we must not generalize from our own fond norms. So far Saddam has not given any indication of a willingness to withdraw entirely and unconditionally from what his propaganda calls the nineteenth province of Iraq. An odd assortment of international itinerants, including Javier Perez de Cuellar and Kurt Waldheim, King Hussein of Jordan and Yasir Arafat, Yevgeny Primakov, Willy Brandt and Yasuhiro Nakasone, Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson have all beaten a path to Baghdad, only to return without anything to show for their efforts (except a handful of hostages who would have been released anyway when Saddam concluded that they were no longer valuable to him as a shield against attack). I strongly suspect that James Baker, even if he travels to Baghdad, is no more likely to come home with his pockets full of concessions.

More to the point, what exactly is there to negotiate about? Some have suggested that we offer Bubiyan and Warbah, the two Kuwaiti islands that block Saddam's unfettered access to the Persian Gulf, as well as the Rumaillah oil fields, just south of the Iraqi border, in exchange for Saddam's withdrawal from the rest of Kuwait. But Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, a majority of the Arab League, the Security Council of the United Nations, and the Bush administration have all rightly rejected this idea, on the grounds that it would be a reward for aggression and set the stage for additional acts of banditry.

Saddam himself has attempted to link the question of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, or at least to the convening of an international conference to resolve the Palestinian problem. It should be obvious that this is simply an attempt to sow the seeds of discord among the countries arrayed against him. The two are entirely different issues. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was an unprovoked act of aggression, whereas Israel came into possession of the territories only after it was attacked by a coalition of Arab countries in 1967. Saddam did not invade Kuwait to help the Palestinians, but to maximize his own power. He is not moved by the plight of the Palestinians, or by anybody else's plight. He is merely exploiting it. And the Palestinians seem happy to assist in their own exploitation.

Paradoxically, if any real possibility of resolving this crisis peacefully exists, it lies not in negotiations leading to concessions that reward aggression, but in convincing Saddam that we are prepared to go to war if he does not comply with the terms of the Security Council resolutions. I suspect that it was a dawning realization that we are serious about opposing his grandiose ambitions, with force if necessary, that lay behind his recent release of the hostages. Surely it was not because he was suddenly filled with the holiday spirit.

In our joy over the reunion of the hostages with their families, however, we must not forget the threat Iraq still poses to vital American interests. Not until Saddam is finally persuaded that he has to make a choice between staying and dying or leaving and living will there be any real chance of inducing him to withdraw from Kuwait. Yet if such an ultimatum is delivered to him—and it is clearly implicit in the Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force—we have to be prepared to use force in the event he refuses to withdraw.

This leads, then, to the third way of bringing the crisis to an end. The use of force, of course, raises profound political, moral, and constitutional questions. A war will undoubtedly bring many casualties—we should not delude ourselves with notions of surgical strikes—and no one can say with certainty what would happen in the wake of such a conflict. Force should be a last resort. But a last resort is sometimes a necessary resort. Last is not the same as never.

Some of those who oppose the use of armed force have argued that war will increase instability and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. There is a measure of truth in this analysis. Still, a peacetime victory of Saddam over the coalition would surely represent a more considerable threat to the stability of the region than a wartime victory of the coalition over Saddam. It is important to note that the Middle East countries that are supposedly most vulnerable to Arab radicalization are precisely the countries that are supporting us most strongly, because their leaders need no lessons in the consequences of allowing Saddam to go unchecked.

Of course, there will be some expressions of hostility toward the United States in the Arab world if American weapons are used against Iraqi soldiers. But those expressions will surely be offset to the extent that other Arab countries are fighting alongside us in a war against Iraq, especially if we make it clear that our intention is not to occupy Iraq but to liberate Kuwait. Recent history demonstrates that the application of American force in the Middle East does not lead to a regional recoil from America: we were warned of the possibility of massive anti-American demonstrations if we attempted to punish Qaddafi for his role in a terrorist attack against American servicemen a few years ago, but our air strike against Libya in 1986 produced little negative response in the Arab world, and even seems to have resulted in enhanced respect for the United States.

Those who are anxious about the unanticipated consequences of a war have focused attention on the casualties that would result, even from a relatively brief and decisive campaign. I yield to nobody in my concern for American lives; but we must face the hard truth that whatever the casualties we might suffer, they are likely to be far smaller than those that would be inflicted upon us if we postpone the day of reckoning until Saddam has added nuclear weapons to his current arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Forcefully denying Saddam the instruments of a nuclear war is itself an expression of concern for American lives. And if the maintenance of a large-scale American presence in the Gulf is a source of fiscal and political anxiety, surely we will be obliged to station a much larger deterrent force in the region if we permit Saddam and his army to remain in Kuwait than if we destroy much of his military machine and his weapons of mass destruction in the process of liberating Kuwait.

Others have suggested that even if we cannot force Saddam out of Kuwait, we can contain his expansionist tendencies and insulate the rest of the region from his marauding ambitions by permanently stationing American troops in the Gulf. They remind us that we contained Soviet and North Korean expansion for forty years and ask why a policy of containment cannot work in the Middle East. These critics are rather Panglossian about the realities of the Middle East. In Europe and on the Korean peninsula, the presence of American forces contributed to the stability of the countries we were trying to defend. In the Arab world, the long-term presence of many American troops would be almost certainly destabilizing.

It is doubtful, moreover, that Saudi Arabia, which is the most conservative Islamic society in the world, would permit us to maintain a sizable presence in the country for any appreciable period. The Saudis are right: if we keep our troops in the region, we may end up contributing unwittingly to the downfall of the very regimes that we set out to defend. And if we have brought 400,000 American troops to Saudi Arabia to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and then accept Baghdad's annexation of Kuwait as a fait accompli, the Saudis are unlikely to have much confidence in our willingness to defend them, and will be more likely to seek their security in a vassal relationship with Iraq. Just as we resisted the Finlandization of Europe, we must resist the Saddamization of the Middle East.

If the president concludes that the sanctions are not likely to work, that there is no realistic prospect for an acceptable political settlement, and that we have no alternative but to use force, it will be essential for him to go to war multilaterally rather than unilaterally. The liberation of Kuwait and the elimination of the Iraqi threat is not only an American responsibility. Our Arab and European coalition partners have just as much—indeed, some of them have more—at stake than we do. It is one thing to be the head of an international posse attempting to deprive a criminal state of the rewards of its aggression. It is quite another for the United States to arrogate to itself the role of policeman of the world. The former is a task that the American people can understand and accept. The latter is an assignment that they do not seek.

Should it come to war, however, we will not be alone. Our Arab partners in this coalition (with the possible exception of Syria) are fully prepared to go to war along with us if that should prove necessary. The British have also been stalwart in their willingness to use force—and even Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader who once supported unilateral disarmament, has spoken up in favor of force should Saddam refuse to withdraw from Kuwait. President Mitterrand has indicated that if the coalition should go to war, France will fight with it. And though it is true that the majority of the forces deployed in the Gulf are American, other countries have made sizable contributions as well. By the end of the year the British, the Egyptians, and the Syrians will have doubled their troop strength in Saudi Arabia, and the total number of foreign forces available for combat will be 225,000. The armed units from twenty-eight countries lend the coalition not only legitimacy, but a substantial increase in military power.

Would we like our coalition partners to shoulder still more of the burden? Of course. But most of those who are critical about the efforts of our European and Arab coalition partners would still be opposed to American policy even if the military contribution offered by other countries were significantly increased. At any rate, if undoing Saddam's annexation of Kuwait is in our interest, we should be prepared to do whatever is required to achieve this objective, rather than act in ways contrary to our interests simply because we have not received all the help from other nations we might have desired. A decision to use force should be based on strategic necessities, not on accounting formulas.

If the president does decide on the use of force, it will be important for him to have the support not only of our coalition partners, but also of Congress. There is no more fateful decision a nation can make than that of risking the lives of its men and women by going to war. It would be a serious constitutional and political mistake on the part of the president if he were to commit our forces to combat (in the absence of an unexpected provocation, such as a pre-emptive Iraqi attack) without congressional authorization. And there is another reason why the president should seek the support of Congress. If we go to war and if we win a quick and decisive victory, as is quite probable, the fact that the president did not seek the prior approval of Congress may become a source of debate among historians and columnists, but is not likely to hurt the president seriously with either Congress or the American people. But war is unpredictable, and we may get bogged down in a protracted conflict. Under those circumstances, with casualties beginning to mount, the president's ability to sustain support for the war will be gravely compromised if he fails to secure the authorization of Congress before hostilities begin.

A half century ago, when Hitler invaded Poland, the British House of Commons gathered to debate what course Britain should follow. After a halting defense of government policy by Neville Chamberlain, one of the opposition MPs rose and began his remarks with the phrase, "Speaking for the Labour Party …" Instantly a voice thundered from the back benches: "Speak for England!" It is time to remember this advice. The crisis in the Gulf is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It is an American issue.

A decision to go to war should not be made, under any circumstances, on the basis of partisan considerations. Still, the Democrats must ponder the political consequences of a reflexive refusal even to consider the use of force. The party has suffered in too many national elections from the popular perception that it is categorically and emotionally unwilling to use force under almost any circumstances other than a direct attack on the United States itself. If Democrats are not prepared to support the use of force in a situation like this, when the aggression is so unambiguous, the international community so cohesive, and the stakes so great, how can anyone ever expect the Democratic Party to support the use of force in defense of vital American interests in the far more common circumstances of confusion, ambiguity, and uncertainty?

I am not arguing that the administration's policies toward the Gulf should be immune from criticism.However skillfully the president and his subordinates have managed this crisis since August, our relationship with Iraq was handled with a comparable lack of skill prior to that date. There was no excuse for putting our policy toward Iraq on automatic pilot for two whole years after its war with Iran ended—which is exactly what the administration did, when it opposed congressional efforts to impose sanctions against Iraq, on the naive assumption that by kowtowing to Saddam we would be in a better position to influence his behavior. By declaring that we had no obligation to come to the defense of Kuwait, and by taking no position on Iraq's border dispute with Kuwait, administration spokesmen clearly contributed to a perception on Saddam's part that we would not resist his use of force in the Gulf.

There will be plenty of time later for post-mortems on the genesis of this affair. Those who were responsible for creating the climate in which such an invasion could take place should bear their fair measure of responsibility. But we must not let the discussion about the immediate danger lose itself in debater's points. The challenge now is to develop a policy that will enable us to undo the consequences of Iraq's aggression.

If we succeed in blocking Saddam's ambitions and restoring Kuwait's independence, we will have preserved our continued access to a stable supply of oil. The stability of the Arab governments that have joined with us to oppose Saddam will be significantly strengthened. We will have a good chance of eliminating Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and setting back for a substantial period of time, perhaps forever, Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. The prospects for progress in the peace process between Israel and the Arabs will be greatly enhanced. We will have reversed a monumental injustice, we will have thwarted one of the most ruthless expansionists in the world, and we will have created the basis for a new international order.

If this isn't worth fighting for, I don't know, as an American and as a Democrat, what is.

 

Stephen J. Solarz was a United States Congressman, representing New York's 13th District from 1975-1993. He was also a visiting professor of international relations at George Washington University and the co-chairman of the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus.

 

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