WE ARE so used to thinking that Iraq must lose this war that we may forget that for Saddam, even a tactical loss could be a strategic win. If he should inflict heavy casualties on the United States (say, ten thousand or so) he might even offer to leave Kuwait unconditionally. Such a seeming defeat would, in fact, be victory. His stature in the Arab world would be enhanced enormously, for even Gamal Abdul Nasser never succeeded in fighting the West as an equal. The Arab world, so the Iraqi dictator believes, would be consumed with anti-Western rage, and ultimately the United States would be forced to make a deal that would leave him pre-eminent in the region. If even part of Saddam’s dark fantasy comes true, the Middle East will be a turbulent and wretched part of the world for years to come.
The kind of settlement that will emerge from a Persian Gulf war depends on how that war is fought, what price it exacts from the combatants, and what kinds of ripple effects are felt in the Arab world. But it is none too soon to begin thinking about what the postwar world may look like, or rather how we should shape it to our purposes. In so doing we should remember that our victory must be defined not only in terms of battlefield success, but in terms of politics. Harry Summers tells the story of an American Army colonel talking with his North Vietnamese counterpart as the United States was withdrawing from Indochina. “You never beat us in a single battle,” the American said. The Vietnamese reflected for a moment and said, “That is true, but irrelevant.” It is entirely possible today, as it was in Vietnam, for the United States to win a pyrrhic victory. To avoid this, Saddam must be defeated not only thoroughly but relatively cheaply. No one in the Arab world should be allowed to delude himself that Saddam has managed to trade blows on an equal basis with the United States. The Persian Gulf war will have three effects: it will determine the attitude of the United States to the Middle East; it will probably break not only Saddam Hussein but Iraqi society; and it will set the tone for interArab politics. If the United States wins while holding our casualties to hundreds rather than thousands of men, the United States will consolidate its position as the world’s only superpower. It may try to create a pax Americana in the region, either through a comprehensive peace settlement, or by playing a vigorous role as balancer and policeman.
Whether the United States should succumb to such a temptation is another matter altogether. Our record in such endeavors is dismal. The Administration has displayed remarkable toughness and tactical skill in standing up to the Iraqis, holding together the coalition, and launching the war. The same Administration, however, gave April Glaspie her talking points for her infamous July session with Saddam and was rescued from its handling of the domestic politics of the war only by the good sense of the American people and by sober congressional Democrats. A more prudent, and luckily a more probable, course would be for the United States to link its fortunes with a restored Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf states, to reaffirm its alliance with Egypt, and to seek to create a moderate bloc of powers to contain Arab radicals.
It is also conceivable, however, that the United States will suffer heavy losses in this war, while achieving only ambiguous results. In that case it might simply decide that being a superpower is a bad business, and that the time has come to do without Middle Eastern oil. Such quasi-isolationism would find no friends in this Administration, but in such a case George Bush could well end up as a one-term President anyway. Baghdad’s Future
BARRING a swift decision by Saddam Hussein to cut and run from a losing war, the conflict will probably conclude with not only the destruction of the Iraqi armed forces, but the weakening of the Iraqi state for at least a decade. We need not worry overmuch that a chastened Saddam or his successor will be able to rebuild the Iraqi military-it will be hard to find suppliers for the major items he will need, including aircraft, tanks, and surface-to-surface missiles. His neighbors and possibly the United States might even put an end to such a venture by force, and it will be some time before Iraq will be able to recover economically from this conflict. More important than external pressure and economic frailty, however, will be what happens to Iraqi society. An uneasy composite of religious and ethnic minorities, Iraq suffers further from the legacy of Ba’athist rule. Like the most ruthless Marxist-Leninist regimes, the Ba’athists have smothered not only competing political organizations, but autonomous social groups as well. The result is an atomized and unstable society, aptly called by one Iraqi exile “the Republic of Fear.” Should Saddam fall, and should it take some time for a plausible successor to emerge, the most likely result would be the Lebanonization of Iraq.
This will probably not lead to its partition. Some neighbors of that country, such as Jordan or Turkey, have no particular desire for such an outcome, and those that do may be deterred by the fear of American punishment or by a sense that if one Middle Eastern state can be carved up, so can others. But an enfeebled Iraq will lose for man years the status it has acquired in the last two decades. Other countries-Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, most notably-will, as they did in Lebanon, search for clients and support favored factions, thereby making life there even less pleasant.
Inter-Arab polities will, if we are fortunate, begin to turn on a Cairo-Riyadh axis, forged in the current war. This relationship between the most self-assured and poorest of Arab states and the wealthiest is all to the good. Although Egypt had already been readmitted to the Arab fold before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the war will confirm that fact. This means that the only Arab country to make peace with Israel-and whose leader has now publicly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself-will receive toleration, support, and even deference from other Arab states.
The Persian Gulf war marks a watershed in inter-Arab politics. Saudi rulers (though only a minority of the Saudi business and intellectual elite) now speak more of Saudi national interest than of pan-Arabism. In a burst of self-assertion they have cut off subsidies to the Palestine Liberation Organization, terminated the special privileges of Yemeni workers (forcing an exodus of four hundred thousand or more), and stopped supplying Jordan with subsidized oil. In private they speak of a peace settlement with Israel once the Palestinian issue is resolved. Pan-Arab furor did not sweep the streets of Arab capitals during the first few days of the war, despite the warnings of some who may have been overly influenced by reporting from the troubled capital of Jordan. A sense of national interest may thus moderate Middle Eastern politics.
Yet, chaotic forces are bound to mar this generally cheerful picture. The introduction of American forces in large numbers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has raised the fears of religious fanatics and the hopes of would-be Westernizers. The royal family has attempted to manage both groups by combining a grim public orthodoxy (banning women from driving, for instance) and remarkable private freedom. Unfortunately, Islamic fanaticism does not end at the borders of Saudi Arabia. It will take new life from the smashing of a secular foe. Ba’athism is a relic of the mid twentieth century; fundamentalism is its replacement. Among Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, power has begun to flow to Hamas, the religious movement that orchestrates much of the intifadah, and away from the PLO. In Jordan, fundamentalists have taken some half-dozen seats in the Cabinet, and their strength is felt in North Africa. These groups believe they can gain power best through the ballot box; we may find the results of “democratization” in the Arab world more than a little disconcerting. On Saddam’s Coattails
THE Arab-Israeli dispute too will feel the effects of that war. Confirming Abba Eban’s dictum that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” they have thrown their lot in with Saddam Hussein, and will suffer thereby. Not only have their organizations lost financial support from the wealthy Arabs of the Gulf; they will be expelled from many countries and tightly controlled in others. Kuwaitis estimate that 5 or 10 per cent of the large Palestinian population in Kuwait collaborated with the Iraqis, and that it provided some of the high-level agents that enabled the invaders to seize and ravage that country so swiftly and efficiently. The Kuwaitis will not forget that. Nor, if there are terrorist attacks by Palestinians on American targets, will the U.S. be disposed to renew its dialogue with the PLO.
At the same time, two developments in Israel are recasting the Jewish state in permanent ways. The first is the amazing influx of Soviet Jews. Two hundred thousand arrived in 1990, and no fewer than one million are expected to arrive in 1991. This will be a tremendous financial burden, but it is, as many Israeli officials and citizens declare, the best thing to happen to the country since its founding. Nearly half a million well-educated workers will join the labor force, and if all goes well, this will not only increase the population of the country by 25 per cent, but lead to the expansion of the economy to the size of that of a small European state.
At the same time, Israeli politicians, including many leaders of the ruling right-wing Likud party, understand that something must be done about the Palestinian problem. Three years of the intifadah have led them to conclude that it can be contained but not suppressed. Conscious of the enormous financial costs of absorbing the Russian Jews and apprehensive about an arms race in which all countries will sell their latest hardware to anyone in the region, they will be willing to look to some kind of peace initiative, probably along the lines of the Camp David accords that brought peace with Egypt. If the Palestinians will accept half a loaf-some form of autonomy, with the door open for renegotiations in five or ten years-this blood feud may creep toward resolution.
This, then, is the Middle East we may expect if we fight this war wisely and well, and on the whole it is better than the one we knew. But the key to a happy outcome is strategic success, which is not the same thing as a quick and bloody win. Air power can win this war, or very nearly so, but may take months to do it. The choice is between a relatively cheap but long conflict fought in the air and a three- or four-week (if all goes well) blitz on the ground that inflicts thousands of casualties on the United States. The air strategy is the proper one. We should avoid American casualties first and foremost because the blood of our citizens is precious; but also because by doing so we will deprive Saddam Hussein of the grisly trophies that alone could let him claim a victory he cannot otherwise obtain.