A Peaceful Gulf Solution
The Boston Globe, November 12, 1990
If Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait, there are two alternatives to the status quo. The United States can go to war or it can negotiate, as some of our European allies desire.
It is now clear that the war option is not very attractive. It would cost thousands of lives and risk a chemical weapons attack on Israel. Devastation of the oilfields in Saudi Arabia could be expected. And it would push to the fore radical forces across the Arab world from Morocco to Jordan. Even if killed, Saddam Hussein would be an Arab hero who stood up to the West.
Negotiations are a disaster of another sort. If Saddam Hussein obtains the oilfield and islands he is seeking, he emerges as a clear winner, able to transform Iraq into a regional economic/military superpower.
This brings us back to the status quo. Compared to the alternatives, it has a lot to offer. It avoids war and it involves a major setback to Sad dam Hussein. Just how great this has been is not always appreciated. Consider his objectives in invading Kuwait:
- To incorporate Kuwait with its riches into Iraq.
- To attain higher oil revenues through higher world prices.
- To dominate the states of the Gulf region.
- To unify the Arab world under his leadership.
- To see Iraq emerge as a regional superpower.
On every point, the status quo represents a major setback. Iraq now has virtually no export earnings; Kuwait’s $l00-billion portfolio remains in Kuwaiti hands; Saudi Arabia is protected against aggression; the Arab world is split in ways that make pan-Arabism a fantasy; Iraq’s ability to gain military technologies from abroad has been eliminated; her international credit has been destroyed, and her future is bleak.
In short, the status quo is hardly a standoff; for Iraq it’s a disaster. To deny Iraq the ability to export oil is to deny it an economic future.
Maintaining the blockade indefinitely has advantages. First, it necessitates that the world becomes serious about the nonproliferation of nuclear and biochemical weapons.
Second, a long-term embargo provides a nonviolent process that would erode the strength of the Iraqi military machine. An Iraq in economic duress cannot survive with a million-man army. Many will have to return to productive economic tasks.
Third, an indefinite blockade maintains a political environment in which US-Soviet cooperation is high, and new structures of international law may be developed.
Can an international quarantine be maintained indefinitely? On the central technical point, the answer is “Yes!” The United States, with a few ships, can keep tankers from carrying Iraqi oil. The pipelines out of Iraq are closed and there is Security Council authority for interdiction.
What about Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states? Would the coalition last? The Saudis are of mixed mind. Some want an attack on Iraq; others are concerned about the potential destruction of Saudi Arabia. But if the US decides against war, the Saudis haven’t much choice. They are clearly better off with the status quo than they would be with concessions to Iraq and a US exit. The Saudis are under pressure because of the presence of US troops.
The US could ease the situation by bringing some of the troops home (there are far more than are needed for defensive purposes); placing the remainder under UN command, as we did in Korea; announcing a plan for future reductions in troops, as they can be replaced by those from Moslem countries.
As for the threat of war recedes, oil prices will decline. Overall, the cost to the US economy will be far less than going to war. And so long as there is no war, Americans accept overseas commitments. US troops have been in Korea for decades, and in Europe even longer.
Finally, a low-key commitment to an international quarantine would deflate Saddam Hussein. Rather than a modern Saladin defending Arab lands against the West, he would emerge as an incompetent leader who has served his country and his party poorly. Under those circumstances, time may even bring political change inside Iraq.