In the excitement accompanying the liberation of Kuwait, dramatic issues concerning military and diplomatic tactics have eclipsed larger questions of policy. This results from a combination of rapidly changing circumstances and the euphoria of an unexpectedly easy victory. But even as Americans celebrate, it is important that they prepare for a less bloody yet possibly more difficult undertaking - the political struggle to win the peace. There are two main reasons for believing that the U.S. government will find it hard to translate military superiority over Iraq into a lasting political success.
First, traditional American instincts in time of war militate against the delineation of a long-term strategy. Americans see war not as a continuation of diplomacy, but as its replacement. Rather than use force whenever it best serves the state's interests, Americans tend to believe that war should be used only as a last resort. (For the same reason, American generals and admirals have often preferred to have nothing to do with policy issues, believing that they have no role during time of war.) have a tradition of wanting total war, regardless of political considerations. Moreover, American leaders often let emotions hold sway, with expensive consequences. It was gratifying in World War II to impose unconditional surrender on the Germans, then to learn that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. But this indulgence extended the war, cost innumerable lives, and permitted the Soviets to grab Eastern Europe.
The second reason for concern about American planning concerns the specifics of the war with Iraq. The buildup to the war included little thinking about long-term goals. By all accounts, the hurly-burly of managing the Persian Gulf crisis - formulating a response, building a coalition, holding it together, exploring diplomatic options, devising a war plan, and winning domestic support - prevented the president and his advisers from thinking much about the aims of the enterprise.
This vacuum became embarrassingly evident when President Bush addressed the country just two hours after launching the war. Speaking to the largest American audience in television history, he used the occasion to go over some very familiar territory, justifying the Administration's actions over previous months and explaining why war was necessary. He did not deal with such matters as defining the goals sought by the U.S. government or the circumstances in which American troops would be brought home. At a news conference on 19 January, the president further revealed the vagueness of his thinking. Asked what he hoped the war would accomplish, he replied: "When this is all over we want to be the healers, we want to do what we can to facilitate what I might optimistically call a new world order." This alarming statement, heavy with mystical and even New Age overtones, seemed to confirm an absence of serious political-military analysis.
When the Administration finally got around to articulating its goals, the results remained too vague to be operational. On 5 February, Secretary of State James Baker offered five desiderata for the Middle East - a new security arrangement, an arms-control agreement, a program of economic reconstruction, a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a reduction of American dependence on Persian Gulf oil - but he offered no specifics and, like Bush, indulged in pie-in-the-sky talk of achieving "real reconciliation based on enduring respect, tolerance and mutual trust" between the Arabs and Israel.
Outsiders offered variant compilations of U.S. goals. Marvin Feuerwerger of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published six points of an "essential framework" to win the peace; Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana presented a seven-point "agenda" to achieve stability in the Middle East; and so forth. But none of these lists answered the two basic questions: How can the war against Iraq best be made to serve American national interests? And what military strategy best advances those interests?
The overriding American interest in the Persian Gulf is to achieve stability. The factors which prompted the U.S. engagement (the threat to oil, the buildup of non-conventional offensive capabilities, the unacceptable precedent, the humanitarian catastrophe) point to the need for quiet and security. Once stability is achieved, other desirable goals (low oil prices, a more equitable sharing of the petro-wealth, elections, and market economies) can be addressed.
Translated into specifics, stability implies the territorial integrity of Iraq; as stable and non-bellicose a government in Baghdad as possible; a balance between Iraqi and Iranian power, thereby preventing either from gaining regional hegemony; the Sabah dynasty's return to Kuwait; and the future security of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the other per-capita income giants.
How can the war that began in mid-January lead to stability? The allies' overwhelming military superiority offers a choice from an unusually wide range of options; picking the right one is not easy. The liberation of Kuwait goes without saying, but what next? Merely reduce Iraq's offensive threat (the huge army and the Republican Guard)? Destroy the non-conventional capabilities (the chemical weapons and missiles, the biological and nuclear facilities)? Topple Saddam Hussein? Eliminate the Ba'th regime? Establish a democratic government? Occupy Iraq? Divide the country among its neighbors?
The American instinct, honed by over fifty years' experience, is to go for total war, total victory, and military occupation. (This explains why official American thinking often portrayed an orderly Iraqi retreat from Kuwait as a "nightmare scenario.") Occupation entails a complete overhaul of the defeated country's institutions with American forces staying on until a new leadership has been fostered. To guarantee the defeated country's security, a military alliance is formed with the United States. Germany and Japan underwent this process on the grandest scale; more recently and more modestly, it was the turn of Grenada and Panama; in between, the (fictional) Grand Duchy of Fenwick aspired to the treatment. The familiarity and past successes of the total-victory-and-occupation model make it popular; Time reported in late January that 72 percent of Americans sought an unconditional Iraqi surrender, while 92 percent insisted on Saddam's removal from power. President Bush's semi-explicit goals - unconditional surrender, Saddam Husayn's ouster, and the formation of a new government - also pointed to this model.
How would total victory fare in Iraq? Here we leave the lofty heights of strategic planning and confront the hard realities of Persian Gulf politics. The unhappy truth is that an American military occupation of Iraq lasting for more than some months would probably lead to one of the great disasters in American foreign policy.
This dire prediction is prompted by a sense of the region's political culture, and especially the attitudes fostered by Islam. Much has been said about Islam's impact on politics and how this shapes attitudes toward American soldiers in the Persian Gulf, but for our purposes three quick points are worth making. First, Islam emphasizes a world divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, with other considerations (language, geography, skin color) being far less important. Second, the law of Islam requires Muslim self-rule; when unbelievers have sovereignty over believers, Muslims usually find the situation intolerable; and instability results. Finally, Middle Eastern Muslims have exceptionally acute sensitivities about Muslim rulers serving as the agents of Western powers; indeed, the puppeteer's strings are commonly discerned where they do not exist.
For these and other reasons, the Iraqi populace can be counted on to resent a predominantly American occupying force. Occupying troops would find themselves victimized by suicide attackers, car bombers, and other acts of terror; the scene in Iraq would recall, on a much grander scale, the depredations suffered by the multinational forces in Lebanon during 1983-84. The Syrian and Iranian governments would actively sabotage the foreign presence (again, as they did in Lebanon). The populations of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would probably force their governments to turn against their non-Muslim allies. As the ignominy of sniper fire buried the prestige of high-tech military superiority, the famous victory achieved by Tomahawks, Tornadoes, and Patriots would quickly become a dim memory. The brilliant General Schwartzkopf would turn into a humiliated Schwartzkopf Pasha.
Were large numbers of U.S. troops were to remain in Saudi Arabia, the results would be nearly as bad. Even though President Bush seems to have ruled this out ("U.S. forces will leave as soon as their mission is over"), the temptation remains. When Secretary of State Baker first spoke of a "security structure" for the Persian Gulf, it sounded like another attempt at a Middle Eastern NATO. This has been tried before (Eisenhower's Baghdad Pact, Reagan's "strategic consensus") and it has always failed. As Henry Kissinger correctly noted in congressional testimony (on 28 November 1990), the contrast with Western Europe and South Korea, where American troops have been stationed for forty years, is profound: "There, American forces contributed to domestic stability; in Saudi Arabia they would threaten it."
The phobia about non-Muslim forces makes the Middle East fundamentally different from other foreign regions in which the United States has fought large-scale wars; it presents the greatest single obstacle to American efforts to stabilize the region. These considerations lead me to conclude that the first imperative of U.S. strategy is not to keep large numbers of American ground troops for long periods in the Persian Gulf region. There must be no American occupation of Iraq, no NATO-like alliance with the Saudis and Kuwaitis, no permanent military bases in their countries.
This said, Muslim antagonism toward non-Muslim powers is far from absolute. Turkey has been a staunch member of NATO for forty years, while a network of discreet alliances tie Muslims between Morocco and Indonesia to Washington. However strong the elemental Islamic antagonism, countervailing influences also exist, and need to be taken into account. Cultural proclivities have their limits as indicators of political behavior; ideologies count too, as do interests. In addition, several other factors are currently important in the Persian Gulf region.
First, a mood of apathy prevails in the Arabic-speaking countries. It has been many years since their populations have been willing to give up their lives for abstract causes; they take matters into their own hands only when an issue is of direct personal concern. Arabs are so prone to riot against currency adjustments, subsidy cuts, and other austerity reforms - as shown by disturbances in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, the Sudan, and Jordan - that they have earned a reputation at the International Monetary Fund for an unwillingness to tolerate the most modest economic adjustments. But symbolic causes are another matter. no longer has the energy to take to the streets. By now, Arabs are a much-disappointed people, stuck in what Hisham Sharabi terms a condition of "paralyzing trauma."
Second, today's regimes have immense coercive power despite their inner crises of legitimacy. While Iraq has the most notorious repressive apparatus of any state in the Middle East, comparable institutions exist in nearly all Arabic-speaking countries. Even such apparently fragile governments as those of Saudi Arabia and Jordan engage in what Michael C. Hudson has dubbed "monarchy by mukhabarat [security apparatus]." Their power permits considerable leeway in pursuing unpopular policies.
Finally, there is a deep respect for the winner, indicated in a revealing Arab proverb: "Kiss the hand you cannot bite." Today, that is the American hand. Far from being enraged at Washington's victory over Iraq, Arabs will respect it for doing what it threatened-at least for a while. The record also suggests that this respect will dissipate. That might happen slowly (the West Bank under Israeli rule remained essentially quiescent for twenty years) or quickly (the Israelis received a hero's welcome in southern Lebanon in 1982 and despairingly fled the area just three years later).
Assuming allied forces prevail, the U.S. government can count on a period of months, but not much more, to stabilize the Persian Gulf. Washington must seize its moment of great but transient influence; it should not - and this is almost too obvious to mention - miss this opportunity by haring off to another issue.
The point bears making, for Western analysts widely agree that the postwar period provides the ideal setting to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Henry Kissinger sees victory in the Gulf as "a historic opportunity" to deal with this issue; the usually sensible Economist goes so far as to argue that "America's main job in the post-war Middle East will be to act as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians." Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary has promised a return to the Palestinian issue "with renewed vigor" once the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait is over; the French government is yet more eager for linkage. Saudi and Egyptian authorities see the Palestinian cause as the ideal vehicle to burnish their nationalist credentials; and, if past patterns hold, the U.S. government will not resist Saudi pressure. Indeed, as early as October 1990, President Bush signaled some willingness to link the two issues.
But this would be a terrible error. A precipitous turn of attention from Iraq and Kuwait to the Arab-Israeli conflict would forfeit a rare chance to overhaul the politics of a key region. It would be like neglecting Germany and Japan in late 1945 to solve the Irish problem. Actually, something like this happened in 1982, when Washington's inability to keep its eyes off the West Bank led to the loss of a unique chance in Lebanon. Here is the story:
Israel had attained its goals in Lebanon by the end of August 1982 - getting the PLO out of that country, reducing Syrian military strength, having a friendly government installed. Although these were Israeli achievements, not American ones, Israel's close association with the United States, including its reliance on American weapons, caused U.S. prestige to soar in tandem with Israel's. Washington could have seized that moment to restructure the Lebanese polity by changing the communal balance of the government, carefully reducing the Christians' power in favor of the Muslims.
Instead, Washington pushed Lebanese issues to the side. Noting that the Lebanon war "has left us with a new opportunity," President Reagan on 1 September 1982 offered a plan to resolve the West Bank conundrum, suggesting Palestinian association with Jordan. King Husayn of Jordan mulled the idea for seven months, then decided against it in April 1983. Rebuffed, Secretary of State George Shultz returned his attention to Lebanon, but by then American diplomacy no longer could prevail. The Syrian military was again strong and a new Lebanese president has taken office. Undaunted, Shultz used his office to prod the Lebanese and Israelis into ending the state of war between their two countries. His victory was Pyrrhic, however: less than a year after the 17 May 1983 Agreement was signed, Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad had forced the Lebanese government to renounce it. Washington had missed a fleeting chance to make a difference in Lebanon.
Eight years later, this unhappy episode has sunk down the memory hole. The Bush Administration appears ready to go down the same path-skipping from Iraq, the problem of the moment, to the Israeli-Palestinian morass. Yet, it plainly makes no sense to ignore Iraq just as a very costly investment is about to pay off. Moreover, shunting aside the relatively simple problem in the Persian Gulf in favor of the notorious difficulties a thousand miles to the west is illogical. But then, as Irving Kristol has observed, "Whom the gods would destroy they first tempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Clearly, the U.S. government should concentrate on the Persian Gulf. Here are some specific steps for planners to consider in pursuing American interests:
- Explicitly affirm the territorial integrity of Iraq within its present borders and impress this commitment on potential aggressors (Syria, Turkey, Iran).
- Announce that the U.S. government is willing to deal with Saddam. This gives the Iraqi leader an incentive to end the fighting; it also gives Washington the latitude to cut a deal with him. Such a step is obviously distasteful, but it promotes American interests.
- Announce that the U.S. government does not intend to bring down Saddam Husayn. While it is emphatically not true, as John Waterbury claims, that Saddam's destruction would be "the worst possible outcome" of the Persian Gulf crisis (his victory would be the worst outcome), to reject any dealing with the Iraqi tyrant would be an emotional indulgence. Conversely, letting him stay in power helps reduce the possibility that American troops need occupy Iraq.
- Announce a willingness to deal with the Ba'th Party. Having liquidated alternative leaderships (with the single exception of the Kurds, who cannot rule Iraq), the Ba'thists cannot readily be replaced. Ousting them probably implies an occupation of Iraq by American and allied forces-or, in their absence, by the Iranians. And if the allies stay away, Iranians and others will take their place.
- Leave as much of the country's basic infrastructure standing as is compatible with swift victory. The worse the destruction, the greater the power vacuum which an outside force-great powers or neighbors-will fill.
- Insist that the Iraqi government reduce its armed forces to about 200,000 soldiers, enough to defend the country from its neighbors, but not to act aggressively.
- To assure this diminution of Iraqi power, reach an agreement with allies about maintaining a military embargo after the war. Because the allies might default on their promises, keep the option open of further military action.
- Plan for a speedy reduction of American and other non-Muslim troops from the Persian Gulf. No more than 50,000 or so infidels should remain in the region.
- To deter future Iraqi or Iranian aggression, initiate discussions with Muslim leaders about their forming a multinational force in the Persian Gulf.
Some of these steps are counterintuitive, others are painful or difficult to achieve. But all are necessary if Americans are to emerge from the Kuwait Crisis with gains commensurate with their sacrifices.