With the end of the cold war and the onset of the Gulf crisis, the United States can now test the validity of the Wilsonian concept of collective security—a test which an automatic Soviet veto in the Security Council has precluded for the past forty years.
The administration first began such a test when, on August 2, the day of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, it successfully sponsored a Security Council resolution finding that invasion “a breach of international security.” That finding met the formal precondition for invoking the mandatory enforcement machinery of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
Then, without waiting for that machinery to take effect, the administration responded to an urgent Saudi request for help by deploying forces under the asserted authority of Article 51 of the Charter, which reserves the right for nations to take actions of “individual or collective self-defense…until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
The administration maintained that juridical position only briefly; it quickly found that it could enlist the support of other nations only by following the carefully calibrated step-by-step arrangements provided by Articles 39 through 42 of the Charter. So, redefining its procedural grounds for action, it joined with other Security Council members to obtain resolutions nullifying the annexation of Kuwait, demanding the freeing of foreign nationals, calling for economic sanctions as an enforcement measure, and if those sanctions proved ineffective, even authorizing member states to use limited military force.
Although the administration’s activities up to this point were beyond reproach, our government now made what, in my view, was the first of two tactical errors. In moving to defend Saudi Arabia it should have avoided the impression that the enterprise was primarily an American project. Presumably the President was so impressed by fear of an imminent Iraqi move toward the Saudi oil fields that he seems to have given a free hand to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As might have been expected, they did what came naturally.
Keenly aware that they were more likely to be blamed for positioning inadequate forces than for providing an excess of force, the Joint Chiefs displayed spectacular speed, putting in place in three weeks forces and equipment equivalent to those America in 1950 had taken three months to deploy in South Korea.
To many experts outside the government that vast armada seemed excessive. America, they thought, could have halted the extension of Iraq’s aggression by maintaining its naval blockade, deploying at least two aircraft carriers with planes equipped for heavy bombing, and limiting ground deployments in Saudi Arabia to probably not more than an armored brigade—a headquarters plus five battalions, or a total (including support personnel) of little more than five thousand men.
Such a collection of forces, air, sea, and ground, should have been sufficient to halt any further Iraqi adventure toward the Saudi oil fields both by its own ability to destroy tanks and its operation as a tripwire that would, when and if necessary, summon the vast deployment that prematurely occurred.
But with each branch of the US armed services vying for a role in the action the deployment developed a momentum of its own. As a result the force finally deployed was equipped not merely for defense but was also capable of offensive action against Kuwait and Iraq. As an exercise in rapid deployment, it demonstrated logistic virtuosity, but the pouring in of such a vast number of American military personnel was costly in more ways than financial. It unduly disrupted the civilian life of America, and thus made it difficult to sustain a long waiting period while the blockade proved its worth. It restricted diplomatic flexibility and exacerbated political hostility in a part of the Middle East highly sensitive to historical, ethnic, and religious tensions.
The administration’s second error, in addition to overdeployment, was its failure to follow the course provided by the UN Charter and secure a resolution under Article 43 that would create a true United Nations force under the United Nations military staff committee.
Using the Charter’s procedures to create such a force would have avoided the need for America to spend its political capital in a nation-by-nation solicitation in order to improvise the current fragile coalition. It would also have saved the administration from the humiliating position of begging other nations to finance the baggage train for what appeared to be a uniquely American initiative. Under Article 43, reinforced by Article 25, each member nation would have been legally bound to heed the Security Council’s call for fighting forces and equipment while the Council could have assessed expenses under an agreed and equitable formula. Thus, instead of our country having to appear as a mendicant seeking military and financial assistance, the United Nations Security Council would have done that work for it.
Moreover, paradoxical as it may sound, the creation of a United Nations force would have provided a more effective command structure. A combined staff, at least nominally responsible to a reconstituted United Nations Military Committee, might, for example, have consisted of generals from America, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and possibly Morocco. Unlike the present potpourri of national forces, it could provide a centralized operation. As a disproportionately large contributor to the common effort, the administration could almost certainly have arranged for an American general to exercise overall command just as General Eisenhower did in Operation Overlord, while leaving specific responsibilities for carrying out assigned missions to national commanders. An instructive example is the invasion of South Korea in 1950, where the authorizing resolution (passed by the General Assembly rather than the Security Council) called on the members to provide “military forces and other assistance” for a “unified command under the United States” and authorized the use of the blue and white United Nations flag.
In the current Gulf crisis, the presence of a United Nations flag would probably have provided some credible insulation from critics of the US while also making possible an authorized central command. So far more than 200,000 troops have been provided by eleven countries, while close to one hundred ships are on hand from fourteen nations and the skies are filled with a mixed bag of aircraft provided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, Canada, and Britain. Since much of the ground equipment used by the Syrians is of Soviet origin, it is indistinguishable from the equipment of Iraq, so that great care must be taken to prevent carnage from “friendly fire.”
Current improvised arrangements for command and control are a tangled web. They call for the Saudi army commander to coordinate maneuvers among the Arab forces in the country. Under an agreement worked out between King Fahd and Secretary of State Baker on November 4, an offensive launched from Saudi soil against Iraqi troops or against Iraq would be undertaken only after President Bush and King Fahd had both approved it. Yet once the two leaders had authorized an attack, the American forces would be free to operate entirely under their own commander without interference from the Saudi military.
On the other hand, if Iraq should attack Saudi Arabia and a defensive operation were necessary, the joint command structure set up when American troops first began arriving would remain in force. That means that the United States commander would consult with his Saudi counterparts over “joint tactical decisions.”
The British air and land forces will come under tactical US control, but the French units will remain independent. European NATO and French naval units will be controlled by a coordinating group operating through the Western European Union, while US units will retain their own chain of command. Though there has been some effort to improvise arrangements to bring all units under effective US control, they are at best hasty contrivances that suffer from a lack of legitimacy.
Were an all-out shooting war to develop, such a diffusion of command could produce major gaffes, with troops of the coalition including Americans likely to fire on units from other coalition members, and in the confusion aircraft might well shoot down friendly aircraft. The problem of identification is not helped since the aircraft on each side may be of American, British, French, or Soviet origin. Under the circumstances, command and control could well disintegrate in the event of actual combat.
America’s insistent visibility is also a problem, for most people in Europe and the Middle East now take it for granted that the United States has assumed the defense of Saudi Arabia as its own project—an attitude many Arabs interpret as meaning that, if America should have its way, the “new world order” to be built in the region would strongly resemble an American protectorate.
The Costs of Unilateralism
What penalties is the United States likely to pay for its insistence on acting unilaterally?
An increasing number of Arabs cynically believe that America is pursuing its own imperialistic objectives to gain effective dominance of Middle East energy resources. They see us fighting to defend a handful of nations lucky enough to be located on vast oil riches even though the elite of those nations squander their wealth in conspicuous consumption, hiding it in Swiss numbered accounts or investing as much as $200 billion outside the Middle East—in the United States, Japan, and Europe—while making little effort to improve the lot of their poor Arab brothers.
This suspicion is intensified by the realization that the increase in oil prices caused by the crisis is variously estimated to provide Saudi Arabia and the emirates with either $6 billion per month or $30 billion per year in windfall profits in addition to what they would be receiving in a more tranquil time. Why should they not be expected to distribute some of this to their Arab brethren in countries made poorer by the crisis—such for example, as Jordan and Egypt?
America’s behavior also leads many Arabs to suspect that America is bent on blocking political progress in the region. Though talking incessantly of democracy, our country concentrates huge forces to defend a handful of authoritarian regimes and absolute monarchies. No wonder America appears to many Arabs as playing the old imperial game of defending dynastic regimes in order to discourage political developments that might challenge what they perceive as America’s ambitions for influence or limited hegemony.
That some of the dynastic regimes, for example Kuwait’s, have been more tolerant and less brutal than the Baathist and other regimes that claim to be modern has not changed the perception of Arabs who resent the traditional privileged rulers of the Gulf states. Today Saddam Hussein is exploiting such feelings of jealousy and resentment of America by appealing to the Arab peoples over the heads of their governments.
As a people haunted by their own turbulent history, many Arabs instinctively view our present policies as one more example of Christian and Jewish infidels from the West waging war against Islam. Although Saddam Hussein has held power as the head of a secular police state he is trying with some success to stir up the religious passions inherent in that conception.