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The Gulf Crisis

It seems doubtful that we could achieve even the minimal objectives called for in the eight UN resolutions without an enormous loss of American lives and the transformation of the whole Middle East into a Beirut writ large.

An Alternative Course

The logic of that conclusion calls for a renewed and vigorous use of diplomacy, which, up to this point, the President has only mildly endorsed, ignoring the implication in the United Nations Charter that the enforcement procedures of Chapter VII, which provides for limited force, should be invoked only after aggrieved nations have fully exhausted the possibilities of Chapter VI (which provides machinery for diplomacy).

King Hussein of Jordan and representatives of the Soviet Union are exploring the possibilities of a peaceful settlement. President Mitterrand has put forward some ideas for a settlement in which Saddam has briefly shown some slight interest, and so have some members of the Saudi royal family. From the American point of view, there would be little danger that a diplomatic effort would entail much risk, since American and other troops would remain in the region until an acceptable result were reached. So let us for the moment face some of the realities of our current predicament and scrutinize the chances of a peaceful solution.

Possible Results of Negotiations

In developing a negotiated settlement, we should, among other things, use the machinery of the United Nations to try to build a bridge on which a weakened Iraqi government could retire from its entrenched position while saving face, at least to some extent. At the same time a settlement, once achieved, should be so designed and presented as to minimize any impression that Saddam Hussein had gained any advantage from his aggression.

Whether Hussein may be willing to accept such outcomes remains hard to say. He has been systematically looting Kuwait not merely of funds in its central bank but also of a vast amount of valuable and useful goods, ranging from computers to traffic lights and Islamic works of art. Some Saudis now speculate that he may have decided that he cannot forever hold out against consolidated world opinion and is planning to give back Kuwait, holding on to as much of the loot as he can, while retaining at least one of the two long-disputed islands that would provide Iraq with access to the Gulf.

As is well known, both Iraq and Kuwait have competing historical claims to bits and pieces of territory, and one course worth considering would be to request that the World Court at the Hague formally survey and redraw the official boundary between the two countries. Alternatively, that task might be entrusted to a special impartial commission established by the Security Council, as was done on January 20, 1948, to draw a cease-fire line between Pakistan and India, which in time became the permanent boundary.

Even without waiting for the results of a World Court decision, an agreement might be negotiated either for granting or leasing one or both of the Kuwaiti offshore islands to provide Iraq with a limited seacoast so that shipping could have access to Iraqi oil.

Clarifying our War Aims

The Bush administration has, in its public statements, mentioned that it has two basic objectives for containing the Iraqi drive; one is to preserve the integrity of the United Nations Charter, which forbids the forcible acquisition of the territories of one nation by another; the second is to avoid the danger that Iraq might obtain a stranglehold on world oil production and use it in a manner that would upset the economies of consuming states.

Because the first of these propositions is a matter of international principle, while the second primarily concerns expense and inconvenience for the American citizens and for those in other consuming nations, the administration has sought to use the first objective to justify international action, while reserving the second primarily to mobilize American public opinion by showing how the lives of American civilians could be directly affected.

Although at the outset of the crisis the press interpreted President Bush’s statements as implying that he included in America’s essential aims the removal of Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq, it soon became clear that no Security Council resolution calling for such an outcome could be framed, let alone passed. Thus President Bush has formulated America’s war aims as the securing of compliance with all eight Security Council resolutions so far adopted.

Even that limited statement has not been fully accepted in the Pentagon, if one can believe the words of General Dugan. Presumably not only he but many like-minded air force officers still want to carry out the press’s interpretations of President Bush’s original statement of war aims. The general told the press that the air force would, if unleashed, follow the advice of Israeli officials that “the best way to hurt Saddam” is “to target his family, his personal guard and his mistress”; because he is “a one-man show” he “ought to be at the focus of our efforts.”

I hope that, for once, we will turn our back on Israel’s advice. Unlike Israel America is not a small insecure nation surrounded by enemies. A succession of United States presidents has quite properly declared that assassinating an enemy head of state is illegal and inappropriate for a great and professedly moral nation. Many Americans shared my own sense of shame when our air force tried, though unsuccessfully, to use bombing to kill Colonel Qaddhafi.

One cannot improve the morality of a sordid military act by using euphemisms to give it a sound of innocence, as when Pentagon spokesmen use the term “decapitation” to describe dropping bombs to kill a head of state.

In any event, who can assure us that the death or removal of Saddam Hussein would neutralize the menace of an aggressive Iraq? Is it not likely that he would be succeeded by a leader with many of the same poisonous qualities?

Safeguards Against a Resurgent Iraq

Because many in the Middle East would understandably feel apprehensive if Saddam were to withdraw from Kuwait but still retain control of the Iraqi military, some provision must be made to allay those fears. After—but only after—Iraq has actually withdrawn its forces, we might arrange for a United Nations peace-keeping force to be installed in Kuwait. That force should consist of military elements from countries neutral in the present conflict. Had we channeled—or were we even now to channel—our armed intervention through a genuine United Nations force, some elements of our military command would feel irked by the constraints inherent in that structure, but the US would not (as is now the case) bear the full responsibility in the world’s eyes for what would almost certainly be a highly unpopular war.

America, it has been all too frequently said, often finds it easy to involve itself in overseas wars but has trouble finding a suitable means of disengagement. When, as undersecretary of state three decades ago, I was vainly trying to halt America’s Vietnam embroilment, I urged President Johnson that we should develop a doctrine of extrication. Such a doctrine, I contended, might not only provide us with an opportune exit from a deteriorating situation, but could furnish a useful guide to prevent our blundering into another bottomless swamp. By keeping the need for possible extrication in mind we should be on a constant alert to include a face-saving escape hatch in any evolving policy. Unhappily, we did not do so then, for the Johnson administration rejected any settlement short of total capitulation. As a result, we drifted without a rudder into a situation of protracted carnage and ultimate stalemate, followed by defeat.

Although my advice of the Sixties should not be wholly disregarded today, we should recognize that mere extrication is an inadequate objective in the Gulf crisis. Saddam Hussein’s ambitions are by no means an isolated phenomenon; the Middle East is ridden with rivalries and political and religious hatreds. Merely halting Saddam Hussein’s aggressions would by no means assure tranquility for the region. Thus, if we are to avoid later Middle East conflicts that might ensnare us, we should not limit our objectives merely to halting Saddam Hussein but should also use the occasion to ameliorate—or if possible remove—festering situations that could erupt into further wars. The deep and complex issues in the Middle East are so intertwined that for the United States to withdraw from the current struggle would merely invite further turmoil. Instead I suggest that we work through the United Nations to put to rest the region’s long-held feuds and rivalries and correct longstanding injustices.

In order to avoid any reliance on linkage we should conclude the present Gulf crisis separately and quite apart from any larger negotiation. Yet we could also use the early announcement of our future plans to help resolve the current mess with the Iraqis. We could, in my view, probably gain some negotiating advantage by firmly promising that, once the Gulf crisis were disposed of (and only then), the US would initiate an all-inclusive reconsideration of Middle East problems, expressly including the Palestinian issue. That might prove a useful ploy in persuading Saddam to comply with the Security Council resolutions, without permitting him to claim that his aggressive acts had procured the settlement of that issue.

The timing of such a comprehensive, fresh look at Middle East problems should not be explicitly related to the end of the current Gulf crisis but rather to the end of the cold war. Frequently in history the end of an epoch has been followed by comprehensive diplomacy to rearrange the political furniture. Such a task was undertaken at Versailles at the end of the First World War, but the statesmen present lacked the vision to put aside primitive feelings of vengeance and traditional rivalries.

A far better example is the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which was convened to give Europe a new structure following the Napoleonic era. Its success was heavily assured by the presence of such statesmen as Castlereagh, Talleyrand, and Metternich who saw that, although the prime objective of the Congress was to protect Europe from a resurgence of French military ambition, other issues had to be dealt with, such as the abolition of the slave traffic and the redrawing of disputed national boundaries.

Today not only is the long agonizing epoch of the cold war rapidly passing but we shall soon face the end of both a century and a millennium. It is clearly time to take stock of the world’s more urgent problems and particularly to tackle the many festering conditions in the Middle East that otherwise could keep that region in recurrent turmoil for decades and the world near the edge of an escalating and uncontrollable conflict.

A New Congress

Thus I suggest that we undertake to arrange a new congress, this time directed specifically at resolving the problems of the Middle East. Such a conference should be called by the Security Council and should have a twofold objective: to assure both security and peace.

To be sure, the conference would presumably be dominated by the permanent members of the Security Council, who would have to convene it; but one can justify their participation on the ground that the major arms suppliers are the only nations that can effectively control the dangerous and escalating flow of weaponry into the area. Of course, in addressing the subjects of security and peace the conference would also contain representatives from all the major interested Middle Eastern countries and interests.


In dealing with “security” the conference would undertake to reduce existing armaments in the region to rational levels. It would seek to eliminate all unconventional weapons and the facilities for producing them, as well as to arrange controls on the flow of both conventional and unconventional arms into the Middle East. That is a major reason why the participants in the conference must include Western powers that are the principal arms producers.

In addition to working toward conventional arms control, the conference should endeavor to rid the Middle East of ballistic missiles and of all unconventional weapons and the facilities for producing them. That would mean both requiring the abandonment of Iraq’s potential nuclear arms production, and also scrapping Israel’s existing production facilities and its nuclear arsenal. It also means eliminating Iraq’s and Israel’s biological and chemical weapons-production facilities as well as those of Libya and other Arab countries. The agreements reached on these measures would have to be meticulously monitored by United Nations agencies, and the conference should provide for stern and effective measures to prevent violations to include other weapons as well.

The urgent need for such action should be readily apparent. America’s policies have stimulated the excessive and dangerous flow of conventional arms into the Middle East to the point where the magnitude of the arsenals of the two sides approaches the total strength of the arms assigned by all member nations to NATO. The momentum of such escalation was permanently assured when the Johnson administration recklessly promised Israel that it would at all times provide Israel enough arms to give it not merely a qualitative but a quantitative edge on its Arab neighbors. Each succeeding American administration has provided Israel with increasingly lethal weapons, and that, in turn, has inspired the Arabs to acquire more arms in an infernal process of action and reaction.


Today the Middle East is made insecure by bitterly challenged borders—between, for example, Mauritania and Morocco, Morocco and Algeria, Libya and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates and within the emirates themselves. In addition there is the well-founded demand of the Palestinians for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied areas, in accordance with several UN resolutions, and for a guarantee of the right of Palestinians to build a nation of their own—to which, as I see it, they are fully entitled. A major conference is essential to resolve these deeprooted arguments.

The conference would discuss all the most pressing disputed issues now pending in the area and try to find compromise solutions.

Because of their number and importance these issues could provide the basis for the conference that could go on to deal with other subjects as well. A possible list of basic items should contain at least the following:

—the establishment of strict controls on arms exports into the Middle East by arms-producing countries and the enunciation of appropriate criteria and quotas as the situation developed. Arab reactions to such controls would be greatly enhanced by the promise of the liquidation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and thus a reduction in the fear of an Israeli attack;

—the creation of machinery for monitoring the dismemberment of facilities for producing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons together with such of those weapons as now existed, leading ultimately to the creation of a nuclear free zone, which has from time to time been proposed both by Egypt and Israel, and the extension of the principle of such a zone to other weapons;

—international arrangements for the peaceful return of the West Bank and Gaza to some newly elected Palestinian government. This would result from an act of Palestinian self-determination, while arrangements were also made for the return of a demilitarized Golan Heights to Syria;

—measures to insure Israel’s security, such as arranging for adequate guarantees that will assure the territorial integrity of the states bordering Israel as well as Israel’s own borders as they existed before 1967. Those boundaries could be underwritten by the security council or its five permanent members including the United States;

—the creation of a special regime for all Jerusalem that would provide for the governance of the undivided city by a duopoly of Israelis and freely elected representatives of the new Palestinian state; along with provision for Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both Israel and the newly created Palestinian state;

—the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and the dispersal of Israel’s surrogate force there, and the recognition by all states in the region of Lebanon’s sovereignty;

—an expanded agenda of problems involving the land, water, and global environment as determined by the US Congress;

—the settlement of other Middle East border issues;

—the financing of the costs of these and other necessary changes to be undertaken by a newly created Middle East development bank—funded primarily by the oil-producing nations. The prime objective of the bank should be to knit together the peoples of the region so as to make possible a rational utilization of their combined resources. Presumably that would mean putting special emphasis on investments in transport and communications and other infrastructure items that will provide both prosperity and cohesion.

The central thesis of this article is that our position in the Gulf crisis presents Americans and their government with a fateful choice. To satisfy the spirit of the United Nations Charter (on which the legitimacy of our position depends) we must, before we resort to military force, prove by experience beyond the slightest doubt that economic interdiction will not accomplish our stated objectives.

But that may take a long time and the wait required will test the maturity of our nation and its citizens. Are we up to it? So far the record has not been altogether reassuring. Just when most knowledgeable people had assumed more than a decade ago that we could negotiate the safe return of the hostages only after a new Iranian government had organized itself fully, gained control of dissident factions, and achieved political self-confidence, the Carter administration abruptly launched its abortive rescue operation that came to a tragic end in the desert.

That venture was doomed to failure from the outset; it was not merely sloppily conducted but ill-conceived. We were lucky that it failed; had the rescue party ever reached Tehran, the death toll would have been shocking with many rescuers and hostages killed. In the end, of course, only further waiting and a predictable evolution of politics in Iran produced the final liberation.

To launch offensive operations in the Persian Gulf crisis would be similarly misguided. Even if they finally achieve our government’s stated goals, they would leave the Middle East a political nightmare. All the old passions would be inflamed, the old jealousies magnified, and the populations of the region would be left with a common hatred of the United States as the country that made a unified military offense possible.

Thus, to follow a sensible and ultimately productive course in the current Gulf crisis, the American people must reconcile themselves to a long waiting period. They must resist all temptations to interpret incidents of accidental carnage or political insult as excuses for war. To achieve such a rational state of mind will take firm leadership by the President and his colleagues, plus a strict resolve to abjure inflammatory attitudes and macho posturing no matter how seductive their political potential.

If we do stay the course with calmness and prudence we shall either win or at least gain experience for undertaking the longer-term project of helping to bring about a new structure in the Middle East. That, in my view, is an enterprise we dare not dismiss; we would be madly irresponsible were we to enter the new century with one of its most important regions metastasized with hatred and bigotry, and tottering permanently on the brink of a war that could become increasingly destructive, and, as technology develops, uncontrollable.

November 8, 1990

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