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Seize the Day

For more than a generation the atmosphere of United Nations headquarters has been redolent with intimations that its very air conditioners have been fueled with sleeping powders. Inanition is a habit that dulls the senses. The UN has been a resigned underreacher too long to recognize quickly that the world has changed and that it may once again be relevant in history.

Far from peaceable resolution though his affairs yet lie, Saddam Hussein appears already to feel the punishment that the new international order may now appoint for overreachers. Nothing could more clearly signal this awareness than his offer to settle his border disputes with Iran on Iran’s terms. Only the desperation of loneliness could have compelled Hussein this cavalierly to liquidate the victory extorted by hecatombs of Iraqis through eight years of war. But then fear of him had already dissipated what wisps were left of the myth of Arab unity, made rather a moderate of Muammar Qaddhafi, and all but united the nations of the world in that never before noticeable phenomenon, an apparently effective boycott.

Hussein has thus found himself isolated in a new world created by Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to sign a separate peace. The Soviet Union and the United States had been the two great overreachers of post–World War II history; and the flirtings of both with Saddam Hussein had been one of their less savory competitive exercises. If the Soviets were still in the game, the UN Security Council would likely be as paralyzed in this emergency as it has so long been in all others.

But then Gorbachev stopped overreaching when his common sense taught him that he had lost. The United States would profit abundantly from the equal common sense of recognizing that it had won and had no further need to overreach.

During the first three weeks in August the administration displayed a curious compulsion never to let a day pass without a headline proclaiming an increased measure of force against Hussein. Yet all that is practical had already been done; and what is thereafter impractical ought not to be thought of. The United States does not appear to have enough troops available to fight a ground war to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Short of that or some other unhopeful adventure, we shall have to wait Hussein out; and there is little assurance that he will fall soon in a world where governments have a way of enduring with few visible means of support. Patience is our only useful posture from here on in; and the sooner we settle into it the better.

The President showed heartening signs of appreciating that necessity in his news conference on August 22. We may assume that he was pressed on one side by a war and on the other by a peace party; presidents, after all, invariably are. Until August 22 there had been some smell of the war party in his rhetoric. He had spent too long in excessive demonstrations of proof that he is not Jimmy Carter, which everyone knew he wasn’t because he is anything but an unlucky man.

But the language at his press conference was as constricted as his golf stroke has grown in the miseries of playing the cheerful vacationer. He abounded in compliments to our allies and to the UN Security Council. All were deserved; it is unthinkable that our troops could be peaceably tenanting Saudi Arabia without support universal in the West and widespread in the Middle East. The sanctions are working because the Soviets have backed them in the UN Security Council. “At this point,” the President said, “I can say we are getting superb cooperation from the Soviets.”

And so, thanks again to Mikhail Gorbachev, we have the beginnings of an effective embargo, a phenomenon so unique that history doesn’t offer much experience to guide us to estimating how long it might take to work. Common sense suggests waiting at least a little while to find out. The alternatives are unpromising. We have announced an eventual deployment of about 100,000 troops in Saudi Arabia. If we were inclined to fiddle with our figures, it would be probably in the direction of exaggerating their strength; 100,000 soldiers does not of course mean anything like 100,000 ground combat troops. The chances all the same are that this force can keep its present positions with sufficient firepower to bloody terribly an Iraqi assault.

But to say this is far from saying that we have a complement in the field with the size and weight offensive warfare demands for taking and holding ground. The Iraqi military establishment has been the object of no end of civilian disdain over the last few days. It is nonetheless an army that fought, however incompetently, for eight years and cannot be dismissed as unseasoned. Troops taught by a long period of poor education in a savage war are no easy test for undermanned troops who have yet to fight a war at all.

We ought by now to have learned what a horrid piece of flippancy it is thus to condescend to your country’s prospective enemy. “Our boys,” as we demean them and ourselves by calling them, will no doubt comport themselves handsomely. That assurance does not alter the suspicion that a generation of draft-dodging has left too few at the ready for the job whose doing some of us civilians so blithely take for granted.

There is, as always, talk of carefully rationed “surgical” air strikes. This sort of thing reflects the familiar “can do” Air Force mentality that has yielded the sparsest retrospective evidence of “could do.” Always until now the target has been pronounced destroyed and the enemy remains; and all that is left is the war on the ground which reason suggests neither Hussein nor the United States and its allies has much prospect of winning. We should take our breath, draw contentment from the company of a suddenly expansive civilized portion of mankind, and trust our patience to work. It has not lately been afforded a brighter opportunity.

We have, if we can resist temptations to overreach, a better chance of living as part of a world ordered by law than has existed since 1950. We had that chance, if only transiently and by accident, when we went to war under the United Nations flag in Korea then; and we lost it by overreaching and going our way alone. Now Gorbachev has given us a second chance; and the President has so far encouraged the hope that we won’t blow it again.

August 30, 1990

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