The world is fortunate that it has taken the Pentagon nearly three months to dispatch a quarter million troops and the requisite heavy hardware to Arabia. The interval seems to have allowed for some salutary second thoughts about why they are there in the first place. But the logic of war still prevails. We are entering the period when war on US terms becomes feasible: Forces are in place, the weather is about as hospitable as it is going to be and the Saudis have not yet asked the Americans to leave.

From the White House come alternating signals of war and peace, which serve to keep the US public, if not Iraq, off balance. Every report of possible negotiations elicits in the media a foreboding account, dire and unattributed, purporting to reflect the administration’s conviction that war is inevitable, that Iraq will not withdraw from Kuwait unless attacked and driven out.

Underlying these fluctuating signals, it seems, is a genuine and far-reaching debate concerning the desirability and necessity of war. A “containment” camp has emerged to contest the enthusiasm of the “rollback” camp.

Those favoring “rollback” — most prominently Henry Kissinger and the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal — stress the need to eliminate Iraq’s military weight in the region and, in the most extreme version, confirm the US as the arbiter of acceptable change there for the foreseeable future. Having made such a visible demonstration of power, they further argue, Washington cannot afford the tarnishing consequences of compromise.

The proponents of “containment” — Zbigniew Brzezinski is the most prolific — endorse the massive US deployment but recognize regional, international and domestic limits on the US ability to undertake unilateral military action. The US deployment, as one Financial Times writer put it, is a reversal of the Nixon Doctrine — instead of “you fight, we pay,” the operative formula is “we fight, you pay.” Among the industrial allies, only Britain appears to favor an American military initiative. Of the Middle Eastern states, Israel and the Gulf ruling families favor a US attack, but the rest of the region betrays a clear preference for a solution short of war, even if this means less than an “unconditional” Iraqi withdrawal.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait should be opposed. Borders are not sacrosanct, but how they are transcended is important. The decision earlier in 1990 of the leaders of North and South Yemen to unify their two countries offers an instructive contrast to the jackboot unity proffered by Saddam Hussein.

How aggression is confronted is also important. A constructive opposition needs to be international in character with a strong regional core.

The problem with the US response is threefold. First, in scale and timing, it has been effectively unilateral. Second, this intervention is primarily military in character, and configured for offensive action. Third, in its Middle Eastern dimension, it is a policy of imposition, based on resort to a war that will devastate many and will likely liberate no one.

The purpose of the war option is not simply to reverse Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, but to do so in a manner that isolates this crisis from the other crises afflicting the Arab world, and in effect isolates it from history. This is what best suits US strategic and commercial interests, as seen from Washington. If this can happen short of war, all the better, but war remains a valid threat to impose this separation.

If the purpose of intervention is to resolve this crisis in ways that advance the important political principles of self-determination and non-aggression, this requires both more and less than a “non-negotiable” Iraqi withdrawal. The “more” part involves US recognition that sovereignty and self-determination cannot be enforced in the case of Kuwait and at the same time denied in the case of the Palestinians. The “less” part involves a regionally mediated settlement in the Gulf rather than one imposed from the West, even though this will in all likelihood achieve only a “conditional” Iraqi withdrawal.

One attraction of the war option concerns timing. Given the very high import dependency of the Iraqi economy, and especially its military machine, economic sanctions can compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, even if these sanctions do not include — and they should not include — an embargo of food. But sanctions will take many months to work, and require protracted negotiations and a viable monitoring system. A military offensive appears to offer a quick resolution that short-circuits the requirements of building and maintaining the necessary coalition of states. The advocates of the war option proclaim that war may be necessary because it will be too difficult for Western political and business leaders to maintain an effective embargo. Thousands, even tens of thousands of people — Americans as well as Iraqis and other Arabs — will have to sacrifice life and limb to compensate for the short attention span of our political class.

This approach goes beyond the issue of withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq’s aggressive capacity has been built over many years with the avid cooperation of foreign governments and firms. The same sort of coordination in reverse is needed to neutralize that capacity, and this should be done in the context of making the entire region free of nuclear, chemical and other “unconventional” military capabilities.

For Washington, the time required to let sanctions work makes more difficult the task of denying “linkage” between Iraq’s aggression and other crises in the region, chiefly the Palestine-Israel conflict. Saddam Hussein’s demand that Israel withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza as a precondition to Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait is transparently self-serving and without merit. But Palestinians and Arabs must have had a bitter laugh when Bush declared on October 9 that “I hope nobody questions our interest in seeing a solution to the Palestine question, to the implementation of the Security Council resolutions.”

In the real world, these crises are linked, not as a consequence of Saddam’s demagogy but as a consequence of decades of US policy. Washington can begin to “delink” them by moving persuasively and promptly to support the long-standing international consensus behind a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The principles and mechanisms of the campaign to secure Iraqi observance of Security Council resolutions can serve as a precedent for securing Israeli observance of the Security Council resolutions that apply to Israel.

Washington’s claim that steps toward resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict represent a “reward” for Iraq’s aggression is bogus. Bush is imposing his own linkage that defers, once again, the long overdue need to apply the principles of self-determination to Palestinians and Israelis.

One component of self-determination that is also on many Arab agendas concerns issues of equity and class, “haves” versus “have-nots.” Saddam is no legitimate voice of the dispossessed, any more than he has the interests of the Palestinians at heart. But the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has tapped into a vast and deep Arab resentment of the existing political and economic order, one that appears to monopolize the region’s resources for the benefit of Western consumers and companies and Arab elites. The scale and timing of the US military deployment displays Washington’s determination that there should be no radical change in these political and economic structures.

A military solution to the crisis is possible only in the most narrow and destructive sense. US military deployment, moreover, compromises the legitimacy of regional and international opposition that properly exists to Iraq’s aggression.

That opposition can only become effective to the extent that this US role is lessened drastically. It is necessary to go beyond the “containment” argument and develop a third camp advocating a build-down of US forces in the region. This, in conjunction with political movement on the larger set of Arab grievances, reduces the danger of war. It will also allow for the possibility of a forward-looking settlement that advances the prospects for collective action against aggression, in the region and in the future.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "From the Editors," Middle East Report 167 (November/December 1990).

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