Whispers are coming from Iraq that Saddam Hussein may be willing to withdraw from Kuwait, or at least from part of it. This raises the tempting possibility that there will be no war in the Persian Gulf, and that most American forces will soon return home, having achieved their goal without firing a shot. Many would cheer such an outcome. But close analysis shows that a peaceful resolution now only defers the fighting until later. What appears to be a non-violent solution will almost surely lead to greater violence in the years ahead.
Saddam Hussein has many reasons to evacuate his troops from Kuwait. The great majority of governments around the world will be so relieved and so pleased with a non-violent resolution that they will quickly drop economic sanctions against Iraq. That Kuwait will have been left looted and despoiled, that many Kuwaitis will have been brutalized, raped, and murdered-all this will be forgotten. If Mr. Hussein makes the right noise ("I was trapped by the Americans"), he will even gain new prestige internationally as a moderate and a statesman.
Withdrawing the troops will be embarrassing for him at home, but the spin doctors in Baghdad know how to portray retreat as victory. They can point to the financial gains made by the operation, the punishment of Kuwait, or the fact that the world coalition dared not confront Iraqi forces. There will probably be much talk about preparing for the next battle - against Israel. Mr. Hussein can survive this reversal just as he survived previous ones.
And if he does, the Iraqi effort to build chemical, biological, and nuclear arms will surely resume, as will the missile program (which may eventually include inter-continental missiles). American-led efforts to restrict the flow of technology and arms to Iraq may have some effect but the record shows that a state determined to acquire the skills and hardware to build its arsenal will find someone willing to make a sale.
It is equally safe to predict that Saddam Hussein will at some point be sorely tempted to use his arsenal. His dream is to gain hegemony over the Persian Gulf region and thereby to become the greatest Arab leader of the twentieth century and a leading power on the world stage. Judging by his speeches, he is obsessed with the fact that over one-half of world petroleum reserves lie within 600 miles of Iraqi borders. Repeatedly, he points out that if the United States were to control these reserves it would "control the fate" of Europe, Japan, and one day possibly the Soviet Union.
In other words, an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait prepares the way for new aggression. If not stopped now, Mr. Hussein will have to be stopped later.
Even if a U.S. expeditionary force remains in place in Saudi Arabia over the years ahead (a questionable assumption given tensions in the area), confronting Mr. Hussein will be far more difficult in the future than it is now. When he subverts or invades a country in 1995, the U.S. government will no longer have today's option of knocking out the Iraqi military-industrial complex or of taking out Mr. Hussein himself. Rather, the U.S. response will have to be cautious and indirect, as it was when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Should the American-led coalition go to war, the easiest part will come first. A plausible casus belli will not be hard to find: Iraqi barbarism in Kuwait or the holding of Western hostages already provide this. Once war begins, there is good reason to think that our forces will quickly gain control of the air and could wreck devastation on Iraq's military-industrial complex.
Things would then get more difficult. If the offensive ended with aerial bombing, Mr. Hussein would most likely remain in power and his troops would still occupy Kuwait. If ground troops joined in the allied assault, they would face larger well-entrenched Iraqi forces defending their homeland. And if our side did reach Basra or even Baghdad and eliminated Mr. Hussein's regime, what next? The prospect of American occupying forces in Iraq fostering a new government in its own image would arouse tremendous hostility among some Iraqis and throughout the Middle East - and would probably fail.
There will be other difficulties too. U.S. facilities and individual Americans may become targets of violence in the Middle East. The fragile international coalition will splinter once violence is used, and with it most of the economic sanctions against Iraq. In the United States, isolationists on the left and right will lobby to bring the troops home.
All these concerns are real and worrisome. But they are secondary because, in the end, it is a matter of dealing with a relatively weak Iraq now or expecting to deal with a much more powerful one in a few years. Bluntly put: war now or war later. The Kuwaitis, Saudis, and Israelis have made their choice clear; they greatly prefer to deal with Mr. Hussein now, when he cannot keep control of Iraqi airspace or deploy nuclear missiles. They are right.
But President Bush seems to be unsure of what he wants to do. He dispatched an enormous expeditionary force to Saudi Arabia and shows a keen grasp of Mr. Hussein's barbarous record and terrible ambitions. Mr. Bush also seems genuinely to believe in what he calls a "diplomatic outcome." Such indecisiveness is only natural; indeed, it is even welcome, for it indicates just how worried he is about taking the most awesome decision a president ever faces - committing troops to war. But eventually Mr. Bush must make up his mind; and that moment is drawing very near.