Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine


The deadly incident on May 17 in the Persian Gulf in which thirty-seven American sailors were killed and the Navy frigate Stark was disabled by an Iraqi missile has again raised the question: What is happening to American foreign policy? Is it merely that we have suffered a series of unlucky mishaps—in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon, and now the Persian Gulf? Or is something seriously at fault with the doctrine that has governed our actions ever since the end of the Second World War?

A series of costly misadventures over several decades cannot be considered a string of aberrations. Something deeper and more troublesome must be at work to account for them. They cannot be blamed on one party or the other; they have afflicted Democratic as well as Republican administrations. Former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick is not wrong to call herself a Truman Republican; the so-called Reagan Doctrine is a variant of the Truman Doctrine—if there is any real difference between them.

This doctrine has been the source of American hubris for forty years and shows no sign of being retired. It is time to reexamine it and to assess what its consequences have been. How did the Truman Doctrine come about in the first place? Where has it led us?


To understand the origin and influence of the Truman Doctrine, it is necessary to go back to what the United States was like in world affairs before 1947.

The United States had begun to consider itself a “world power” only a half-century earlier. The term itself apparently appeared in its original German version, Weltmacht, where it seems to be more at home, in the 1880s. It was first applied to the United States in 1898 as a result of the so-called Spanish-American War, primarily through the acquisition of the Philippine Islands, which was an unintended byproduct of that war. The first American book with the title World Politics came out in 1900.1 The first book with the title America As a World Power appeared in 1907, and another one, The United States As a World Power, the following year.2

The change from a hemispheric to a world power was reflected in the various editions of James Bryce’s celebrated The American Commonwealth. In the first edition published in 1888, Bryce thought that he had to say “but little” about American foreign relations. In the revised edition of 1920, he noted: “Americans have latterly been wont to speak of themselves as having become, through the events of 1898, a World Power.” Mr. Dooley sighed at the time for the good old days before we became “a wurruld power” and “now, be Hivins, we have no peace iv mind.”

The United States may have awakened one day in 1898 to find itself a “world power,” but it was only a beginning. Theodore Roosevelt tried in the next decade to play a role befitting such a status, without much success. Woodrow Wilson backed into the First World War at a late stage and died disappointed that he could not make the country live up to what he considered to be its international responsibility. The 1920s were two-faced—political isolationism went along with economic and financial internationalism. Franklin D. Roosevelt found in 1937 as a result of the hostile reaction to his “quarantine speech” against the Japanese aggression in China that the United States was still unwilling to assert itself in international conflicts.

In effect, the United States may have been a world power at the outbreak of the Second World War, but it was not equipped like one and it did not act like one. Militarily, according to the chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, it was “not even a third-rate” power. He commanded “the bare skeletons of three and one-half divisions scattered in small pieces over the entire United States” with no facilities and funds even to train them. The Air Force could “hardly have survived a single day of modern aerial combat.”3 Diplomatically, the United States was not much more impressive. Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s staff numbered twenty-one. I doubt whether there is any country in the world today, no matter how small, whose foreign minister does not have a larger staff.

So pessimistic was Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II that the most the United States could do, he said, was to maintain itself as a “citadel” in which Western civilization “may be kept alive.”4 Yet, only two years later, Roosevelt conceived of the United States as a “world policeman.”5 During the war he increased the number of policemen from two (with Great Britain) to three and finally to four—the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, and France. The transition from besieged “citadel” to “world policeman” took place in Roosevelt’s mind within two years—from 1939 to 1941.

As a world power, then, the United States matured, as it were, overnight. There was no time to prepare for the new role, to slide into it gracefully. Doctrines, principles, theories, and, above all, experience of what it meant for the United States to behave as a preeminent world power were lacking. Other imperial powers had learned over centuries; the United States was given a few short years.



By the end of the war, less than six years from the beginning, a sense of absolute power captured the political imagination of Allied leaders. The period did not last long—only about six months—from April to September 1945. That it happened at all, however, shows how far the idea of world power had briefly gone.

This sense of absolute power came with the atomic bomb. The Americans were not the only ones to be temporary victims of the atomic illusion. As early as August 1943, in the midst of the war, when the bomb was still an unknown quantity, Sir John Anderson, then in charge of the British atomic effort, confided to Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada that the first country to possess atomic bombs would gain “absolute control of the world.”6 When Secretary of State James F. Byrnes briefed the new president, Harry S. Truman, on the bomb in April 1945, Byrnes said that it “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”7 Soon afterward, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson told Truman that the atomic bomb “would be certain to have a decisive influence on our relations with other countries.”8 On May 13, Stimson referred in his diary to the bomb as a “master card.”9

All this soothsaying took place before the bomb was tested on July 16 and before anyone could be sure that there was a bomb. After the test, heads were again turned. The chief of the imperial general staff, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, has probably left an exaggerated account of Winston Churchill’s megalomania: “He [Churchill] had at once painted a wonderful picture of himself as the sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he wished, thus all-powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin!”10 Alanbrooke himself went equally far in the opposite direction; he thought that the Russians, who had not yet built a bomb, would try to use it as “a means of obtaining complete control of the Western Hemisphere, if not the whole world.”11 Churchill himself told the House of Commons in August that those who had the bomb possessed “powers which were irresistible.”12 There seems to be enough evidence from different quarters to indicate that the first effect of the bomb was intoxicating.

In any case, the bomb should have had its maximum psychological effect on the Soviets soon after it was dropped in August 1945. By chance, the Soviet reaction was tested only a month later when the newly formed Council of Foreign Ministers met in London in September. The Americans apparently expected the Soviets to capitulate to the bomb. According to Stimson’s diary, Byrnes went to London “very much against any attempt to cooperate with the Russians” because he was counting on “the presence of the bomb in his pocket, so to speak.” 13

But the Soviet foreign minister, V.M. Molotov, behaved as if the atomic bomb did not exist. In London, he was more demanding and disagreeable than ever. Anyone reading the record of that conference might easily imagine that Molotov had come with the bomb in his pocket. Byrnes returned to Washington sadly disillusioned. He told one person that he was “almost ashamed” of himself because of the treatment he had suffered from Molotov; he confided to another that the Russians had adopted an indefensibly “aggressive attitude” on political and territorial matters.14 Byrnes seemed to have forgotten that he was supposed to have been the aggressive one. He lost the confidence of the President, and his career was finished.

A great deal of historical mischief was caused by the “revisionist” thesis that the atomic fantasy of Secretary Byrnes and others toward the end of the war was the basis of what was called cold-war “atomic diplomacy.” It was at best a half-truth. The half-truth was that the bomb did dominate the thinking of some American leaders until August 1945. But the Americans soon learned that there was no such thing as “atomic diplomacy” or, to put it another way, that the atom bomb was not a useful diplomatic instrument. In the next decade, John Foster Dulles was no more successful than Byrnes had been in using the new strategic weapons for diplomatic purposes.

Whatever the bomb or the rhetoric, the United States was effectively forced to share world power with the Soviet Union—and knew it from at least the last quarter of 1945. Yet a popular phrase, “Pax Americana,” took hold. There was no such “Pax,” or at best it was a “Half-Pax.” A Pax Sovietica-Americana would have been closer to the truth, and even that would have been an oversimplification for some parts of the world.


Nevertheless, the illusion of a Pax Americana produced a sense of frustration in American leaders. It was never given up and it was never achieved. Every effort to make good on it has produced disappointment that the rest of the world persistently refuses to play its assigned role in the American scheme of things.


The Truman Doctrine was the original codification of the Pax Americana illusion. The policy was enunciated in reaction to a specific, local situation and took shape in response to a vision of universal ascendancy.

Greece had traditionally been a British client state. As a result of the black winter of 1946, the British in February 1947 decided that they could no longer afford to subsidize Greece. To make matters worse, Communist-led guerrillas were threatening to come down from the north. The imminent British withdrawal from the country set the stage for the Truman Doctrine.

In March and April 1947, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the need for the United States to replace Great Britain in Greece. Unfortunately, this testimony was not made public for twenty-six years and was then virtually ignored. The inner history of the Truman Doctrine cannot be understood without it.

Acheson made clear that by 1947 the Truman administration had effectively given up all hope of “liberating” Eastern Europe. “It is true that there are parts of the world to which we have no access,” he said. “It would be silly to believe that we can do anything effective in Romania, Bulgaria, or Poland. You cannot do that. That is within the Russian area of physical force. We are excluded from that.”15 None of the senators present, headed by the Republican chairman, Arthur H. Vandenberg, demurred at this stark presentation of the facts of life in Eastern Europe.

Acheson also explained that Americans were going to take the place of the British in Greece but on a far larger scale. To the Americans at the time, it made no sense to put money, material, and manpower into a country that they knew was run by a chaotic and corrupt government and administration. It made sense to see that the money was well spent—which meant to them that Americans had to oversee the spending. So Acheson told the senators that it would be necessary to put Americans “into the essential key [Greek] Ministries which are necessary to control the basic factors.” At another point, Acheson declared: “You have to have people in these place I talked about [Greek ministries and administrative bureaus], who have the authority to say to Greece, ‘Stop doing this! You are draining off your resources.’ “16

We need not go into the rights and wrongs of this policy; it seemed necessary at the time. Whatever the rationale, several things are striking about it.

There was no precedent outside the Western hemisphere for putting Americans directly or indirectly in charge of a foreign administration. If the British had been able to maintain their position in Greece, the occasion for making such a leap in American policy would not have arisen and would not have forced a sudden, improvised escalation of American responsibilities. It was another example of how little time the Americans had to prepare for and think through their new responsibilities.

They succeeded, as Acheson testified and events proved, in arriving at a workable postwar foreign policy only after separating the problems of Eastern and Western Europe. If the Truman administration had actively tried to re-create both halves of Europe, the attempt would almost surely have been doomed to failure—or war. The Marshall Plan the following year settled for less and accomplished what is still the greatest postwar success of American policy.

But something else haunted and continues to haunt American policy. The practical policy was limited to a region where it could work successfully—Western Europe. Yet the terms used by President Truman to justify that policy were universal. The limitations of the policy could not or in any case would not be admitted publicly. The mixture of a universal doctrine with limited means of action created a dangerous mixture of illusion and reality which we have yet to rid ourselves of.

Byrnes could not bring the two together; he was sacrificed to keep the illusion alive. Acheson could do nothing about the Chinese Communist victory; he was pilloried for it. Dulles and the Republicans were right when they charged that Truman and Acheson had effectively written off Eastern Europe—and they were just as helpless as the Democrats had been.


It has long been puzzling why the Truman Doctrine was cast in universal terms.

The immediate problem for Truman was to get Congress to appropriate $250 million for Greece and $150 million for Turkey, which was considered to be endangered. He might have been content to explain why the two countries needed the money desperately and why they could get it only from the United States. The State Department drafted a message from him to Congress in this vein, which he later contemptuously described as sounding like “an investment prospectus.” Truman returned it with instructions that he wanted more emphasis on “a declaration of general policy.”17 In effect, he wanted to universalize a local, particular condition.

The metamorphosis of Greece into the universe was accomplished by the “domino” or, as it might have been called, the “rotten-apple” principle. Its author was Acheson. The scene of the transformation was the closed meeting of the Senate committee at which the request for aid was presented. According to his own account, Acheson was dissatisfied with the presentation made by Secretary of State Marshall. He injected himself into the discussion to say the following:

In the past eighteen months, Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.18

Acheson says that this argument persuaded the senators to go along. He swayed them by extending the crisis from Greece—which Stalin had previously awarded to the British sphere of influence in return for British acquiescence in Soviet domination of most of Eastern Europe—to three continents, to all of the Middle East and much of the West. Iran was then as now one of the endangered species. President Eisenhower later substituted dominoes for rotten apples but the reasoning was the same. The universalization of American policy needed the universalization of the Communist threat.

By the time Acheson’s reasoning was echoed by Senator Vandenberg, the process had taken on the character of a fatality. To a correspondent Vandenberg soon wrote: “Greece must be helped or Greece sinks permanently into the communist order. Turkey inevitably follows. Then comes the chain reaction which might sweep from the Dardanelles to the China sea.”19

That something genuinely new had entered American policy was recognized at that time by the sponsors of this legislation. The new element was not so much aid to another country as the enunciation of a general doctrine that could be applied automatically everywhere.20 It was on this ground that the language of the President’s message to Congress was criticized by George F. Kennan, its most thoughtful critic from within the State Department. Kennan accepted the necessity “to stiffen the backs of the non-Communist elements in Greece,” though he saw no reason to treat Turkey the same way. As he later explained, he objected to the passage in the speech that gave it the character of an indeterminate doctrine—that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

Kennan’s criticism was just as basic as the doctrine itself:

This passage, and others as well, placed our aid to Greece in the framework of a universal policy rather than in that of a specific decision addressed to a specific set of circumstances…. It seemed to me highly uncertain that we would invariably find it in our interest or within our means to extend assistance to countries that found themselves in this extremity. The mere fact of their being in such a plight was only one of the criteria that had to be taken into account in determining our action.21

A doctrine of this sort could easily become a substitute for thought. It gave the United States a license to intervene anywhere and everywhere at any time in any way, if only the right formula was used to justify the move.

All this began in 1947, only about two years after the evanescent fantasy of absolute power induced by the bomb. The Soviet Union did not even have the bomb at this time and did not have one for two more years, though everyone knew that it was making every effort to get one. The highs and lows of American hopes and fears are among the most peculiar aspects of this period—an oscillation that still afflicts us.


The doctrine of universal responsibility has led to another deformation of policy. The United States is almost never prepared for a particular application of the doctrine. One reason is that no country can plan for everything that is likely to happen all over the world. Planning presupposes that there is some sense of specific, definable self-interest or some other form of limitation that guides the planners to what they need to plan for.

Unlimited commitments require unlimited power. Not even the United States has that kind of power, and its relative power has steadily decreased as the rest of the world has recovered and the Soviet Union has caught up in nuclear weaponry.

In 1950, Acheson, then secretary of state, tried to delimit American commitments, despite his previous role in making them wide open. He publicly defined the “defensible perimeter” of the United States in such a way as to exclude the Asiatic mainland, including Korea. He was even strengthened in this conviction by a similar statement a year earlier by General Douglas MacArthur, before the latter’s fall from grace.

Nevertheless, President Truman did not hesitate to intervene in the Korean War, for which no American plans or preparations had ever been made. He could not in good conscience claim that Korea itself was an American responsibility. Instead, he resorted once more to the rotten-apple or domino principle, and so imaginatively that he made Western Europe stand or fall in Korea.22

Somewhat the same thing happened in the case of the Vietnam War. At first no responsible American leader could imagine that we would get into that war at all. In 1954, President Eisenhower declared that “no one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting the United States involved now in a hot war in that region [Vietnam] than I am” and that he could not “conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of these regions, particularly with large units.” In 1963, President Kennedy said: “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones to win or lose it.” In 1964, President Johnson said: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

But then, when Johnson decided to get the United States involved in a hot war, take over their war, and send American boys to do what Asian boys ought to be doing, he abruptly decided that it was better to fight in Vietnam than in Honolulu, as if one followed from the other. The Republican spokesman at the time, Richard Nixon, goaded Johnson to get in there and fight, with a pathological exhibition of the rotten-apple or domino theory. The fate of Vietnam, he said, was the fate of all of Southeast Asia as far as Burma and Indonesia, the United States would have to fight a major war to save the Philippines, Japan would inevitably go neutralist, the Pacific would become a “Red sea,” and Australia was going to be attacked in only four or five years by Communist China.23

What had happened in these and other cases of American intervention was that the Truman Doctrine was being substituted for any rational calculus of means and ends. The doctrine had begun to live a life of its own, undisturbed by specific, practical, complex circumstances, such as those that had called it forth.

As a result, the pattern has been action first, thought afterward. The decisions to fight in Korea and Vietnam were made before any serious attention was given to the nature of the wars and how to cope with them. The nature of the Vietnam War was so unclear to the American military that a serious student of the war, Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., has stated that its nature was still in question almost a decade after American involvement.24

Colonel Summers also remarks: “Neither our civilian nor our military leaders dreamed that a tenth-rate undeveloped country like North Vietnam could possibly defeat the United States, the world’s dominant military and industrial power.”25 This fallacy has plagued the United States in one of these far-flung wars after another. The mistake arises from the notion that the war is going to be decided by general, overall military and industrial power rather than by the power that can be brought to bear locally at the point of combat. The United States could undoubtedly have defeated North Vietnam if it had been willing to fight no matter what the cost or duration of the struggle. But when a country as strong as the United States undertakes to fight everywhere under all conditions it cannot afford to use more than a fraction of its military and industrial power, especially against a tenth-rate undeveloped country. If the conditions are not suitable for its men, machines, and tactics, it is quite capable of being outfought and outstayed.

Yet Vietnam did not teach us enough about how not to apply the Truman Doctrine. When US Marines were attacked at the Beirut airport, the tired old words were trotted out once again. After 260 Marines were killed in the truck bombing in October 1983, Secretary of State Shultz intoned that the Marines would stay because “it is a region of vital strategic and economic importance for the free world, because it is an area of competition between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union [and] because we have a deep and abiding commitment to Israel.”26 President Reagan justified the slaughter on the ground that “the area is key to the economic and political life of the West” and if “that key should fall into the hands of a power or powers hostile to the free world, there would be a direct threat to the United States and to our allies.” Incredibly, he claimed that the Marines were attacked for the very reason that they were “accomplishing” their mission.27

In December of that year, President Reagan told Congress that the Marines had to stay in Lebanon because “the international credibility of the U.S.A. and its partners” was at stake. A report prepared by both Secretary Shultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger warned that any “premature withdrawal” of the Marines would “call into question the resolve of the West to help the Free World defend itself.”

On February 7, 1984, however, the President announced that most of the Marines were going to be “redeployed” to ships offshore. He revealed a week later that the “restationing of our forces” had been planned “for quite some time,” evidently while he and other high officials were telling the American people how great the stakes were and how vital it was to keep the Marines in place. Most amazingly of all, the President maintained that moving the Marines to ships offshore represented an “improvement” over the airport for the fulfillment of their mission. He even said that he expected the Marines to stay offshore for another eighteen months, though he hoped that it would not be necessary.

All this was deception or self-deception or something of both on a prodigious scale. The main criticism of the disaster was tactical—that the Marines should never have been confined passively in the airport waiting for terrorists to strike. But there was also a preposterous disparity between the doctrinal rationale and the practical action. If the stakes were really as great as President Reagan and Secretary Shultz said they were—“vital strategic and economic importance for the free world,” “the international credibility of the U.S.A. and its partners,” “the resolve of the West to help the Free World defend itself”—the means employed were derisory and the denouement was incongruous.

Did the President and his men really believe what they had been saying? More likely, the words were hostages of a doctrine that has bewitched administration after administration. The doctrine is so compelling because it gives the United States and its leaders a rationale for showing how powerful they are, even if they prove in action to be less powerful than they think they are. The action in Lebanon was relatively smallscale; the reasoning behind it was monumentally inflated. When the Marines were withdrawn from Beirut, the vital interests and credibility and resolve of the United States and the free world were just about what they had been before.

I have gone into the background of American “world power” and the Truman Doctrine because they still have a bearing on American policy making. The doctrine has been treated as if it were a sacred text that cannot be questioned. We are again on the verge of allowing it to take us down the slippery slope to disillusionment. As if nothing had been learned from the past, we have returned to rotten apples, dominoes, and the doctrine.


A sure sign that the doctrine is being applied mechanically, with a minimum of discrimination, is the language used to put it into effect. It is always necessary to use the words “vital interest,” “national security,” “free world,” “peace is at stake,” and, above all, some version of the “Soviet threat.” If these phrases were not employed, it might be necessary to do some thinking and explain the policy in less simplistic and apocalyptic terms. In that case, it is hard to know whose intelligence would be strained the most—our policy makers’ or the general public’s.

When President Reagan undertook to explain his policy in the Persian Gulf, he repeated or played variations on all of these themes. Five days after the Stark was struck on May 17, he said: “Peace is at stake here; and so too is our own nation’s security, and our freedom.” Peace in the Gulf, surely; our own security, dubiously; and our freedom, absurdly. Twelve days later, he played at full blast the whole doctrinal organ music—“national security,” economic disaster, “freedom of navigation,” “commitment” to the “peace and welfare” of “our friends and allies,” preservation of “peace.”

A perfectly mindless expression of the doctrine was contributed by Secretary of Defense Weinberger on June 9. “The fundamental issue is leadership,” he told the House Armed Services Committee, “the leadership of the free world to resist the forces of anarchy and tyranny.” One would imagine from this hyperbolic verbiage that we were about to get into a war of epic proportions, worth any cost or sacrifice. These incantations have become so routine that the words will not be meaningful if they are really needed.


One wonders whether the policy could have been put over on the American people if the President had told them how Iraq and Kuwait have manipulated the United States with the aim of getting us into the middle of the Iran-Iraq war.

Kuwait is little more than a gigantic oil well. It has been independent only since 1961, before which time it was a British protectorate. It has the population of Houston and an area two-thirds that of Vermont.28 Only 23 percent of its population is native Kuwaiti and only about 40 percent are citizens, forcing it to depend largely on an alien labor force, many of them Palestinians. Thanks to its oil, which provides over 94 percent of its revenue, its per capita income is close to a phenomenal $11,500 a year, with no need for anyone to pay taxes. This cornucopia of oil is ruled by the hereditary Al-Sabah dynasty, with close ties to a similar ruling caste in Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait and Iraq, its northern neighbor, were not always so friendly. As soon as the British protectorate in Kuwait came to an end in 1961, Iraq’s ruler at the time, General ‘Abd al-Karim Kassem, announced that Kuwait was really Iraqi territory; British troops had to come back hastily to prevent him from taking possession. Kuwait was not recognized by Iraq until after General Kassem was overthrown in 1963, but frontier fighting between the two went on for years. Iraq, in fact, temporarily seized adjoining Kuwaiti territory in 1973 and has long used threats of territorial aggression to extort vast sums from the overflowing Kuwaiti exchequer. This is not a region of fastidious diplomatic relationships.

Kuwait’s relations with the United States have also been checkered. For years its press was one of the most anti-American in the region, largely because of Kuwait’s fiercely anti-Israel policy. Kuwait cut off oil shipments to the United States after the Six Day War in 1967, an action suggesting that we can hardly depend on Kuwait in all circumstances. In 1983, Kuwait refused to accept as ambassador a veteran US diplomat, Brandon H. Grove, Jr., because he had served as US consul general in East Jerusalem. The Washington Post correspondent in Kuwait, David B. Ottaway, observed as late as June 24, 1984, that Kuwait was “accustomed to blaming the United States for all the ills afflicting the Arab world, and the gulf in particular.” Kuwait modulated its anti-American line in that year because Iran had begun attacking Kuwaiti tankers and had taken the place of the United States as the main enemy.

In 1980, President Carter’s State of the Union message pledged that the United States would go to war, if necessary, to prevent “any outside force” from gaining control of the Gulf region. At that time, ironically, the Kuwaiti minister of foreign affairs objected to the US commitment on the ground that “the people of this region are perfectly capable of preserving their own security and stability.” 29

The present predicament of Kuwait has arisen from its increasingly close ties with its former bugaboo, Iraq, dating from the reckless attack on Iran by the present Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in 1980. Kuwait has mortgaged its fate to Iraq by supporting it to the tune of billions of dollars and by acting as its receiving and transshipment point for war materiel, much of it from the Soviet Union. The pretense that Kuwait has been neutral is sheer humbug; Kuwait has been Iraq’s foremost ally.30

The Iran-Iraq war has been one of the most savage in modern times. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has resorted to chemical weapons, Iran’s Khomeini to the mass sacrifice of children on the battlefield. In 1984, since the fighting was stalemated on the ground, a war against tankers, in which Iran was most vulnerable, broke out. The tanker war was started by Iraq, just as it had started the entire war. Iraq uses a pipeline through Turkey and Saudi Arabia; Iran must transport its oil by sea in tankers from many foreign countries and companies. More than 300 tankers and freighters have been hit by both sides, with the loss of about 200 lives, but only one tanker has been sunk. In 1985, three-quarters of the attacks were Iraqi, in 1986, 60 percent. More recently, Iran has concentrated its fire on Kuwaiti tankers, though no Kuwaiti ship has been hit since October 22 of last year. There were no Kuwaiti losses for eight months before the Reagan administration decided to get agitated about the threat to Kuwaiti shipping.

Yet the October incident was soon followed by a change in Kuwaiti policy. A decision was made to entangle the great powers instead of keeping them out. But Kuwait did not appeal first to the United States. That distinction was reserved for the Soviet Union.

Despite the evident political disparities between Kuwait and the Soviet Union, their relations have been remarkably close for some years. In 1979, Kuwait made known that it was receiving Soviet arms, including ground-to-air missiles. Deputy Prime Minister Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al-Sabah of the ruling family visited the Soviet Union in April 1981 and the Eastern bloc countries of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania the following September. The East German head of state, Erich Honecker, came to Kuwait in October 1982. Then, in August 1984, Kuwait signed a far-reaching agreement for the purchase of more arms from the Soviet Union. This deal is of particular interest because it was virtually a dress rehearsal for the present tanker operation.

First, Kuwait wanted “Stinger” anti-aircraft missile weapons and F-16 jet fighters from the United States, but these requests were turned down. Instead, Washington offered a different $82 million air defense package. Then Kuwait went to the Soviet Union and arranged for the purchase of arms reported to be worth $327 million. With the arms came Soviet technicians and advisers. After this, the Reagan administration relented and sold more military equipment to Kuwait, the total officially reported to be worth $1.5 billion by 1985.

Kuwait, in short, has had some practice playing the United States off against the Soviet Union. Its foreign policy has long been one of nonalignment, which it still professes. Its problem has been that it is too rich to be left alone and too weak to defend itself. The West may adopt Kuwait but Kuwait does not choose the West.

Iraq has also managed to achieve exceptionally close relations with the Soviet Union. Increased Soviet support for Iraq seems to have come in 1983 when Iran cracked down on the Tudeh (Communist) party of Iran. The Soviet Union has been Iraq’s main arms supplier, at least since 1983,31 with Kuwait the intermediary between the two countries. Saddam Hussein has succeeded in getting the backing of a most peculiar combination, including the Soviet Union, France, Saudi Arabia, and now the United States. Communist China has become one of Iran’s major arms merchants.


How tiny Kuwait managed to enlist the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union is one of the most extra-ordinary feats of modern diplomacy. We do not have the whole story, but we have enough to make us envy such virtuosity.

According to the best available information, the government-owned Kuwait Oil Tanker Company informed the US Coast Guard on December 10 of last year that it wished to put the US flag on its ships to gain them US protection. During that same month, Kuwaiti officials went to Moscow and worked out an agreement with the Soviet Union. It provided for Kuwait to charter three Soviet tankers on a renewable one-year lease, with the additional stipulation that two more might be added on “short notice.” It also permitted Kuwait to lease to the Soviet Union an unspecified number of additional tankers “to be rechartered to the Kuwaiti side thereafter whenever the government of Kuwait so requests.”

These provisions were worked out to enable Kuwait to increase its Soviet-protected tankers if the United States did not come across. When the United States did not quickly grab at the bait, Kuwait’s oil minister, Ali al-Khalifa al-Athbi Al-Sabah, formally requested that the US agree to the “reflagging” of some Kuwaiti ships on January 13 of this year. Still, no American reply was forthcoming until a report was received in Washington on March 2 that a deal had been struck between Kuwait and the Soviet Union for the protection of Kuwaiti tankers. Five days later, the United States decided to outbid the Soviets by offering to put the US flag on eleven Kuwaiti tankers. Kuwait now had both powers on its string; the agreement with the Soviet Union was signed on April 1. All this attracted very little attention until the Stark was hit on May 17.32 Kuwait is so ecumenical politically that it subsequently invited Communist China to join in protecting Kuwait’s capitalistic oil trade. In effect, Kuwait does not wish to be beholden to any one of the great powers and prefers to have them compete for the privilege of serving its interests.

It thus appears that Kuwait hooked our guardians in Washington by confronting the United States with a Soviet–Kuwaiti deal. However, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was also told on May 9 by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Richard W. Murphy that the Kuwaiti decision to seek Soviet protection had come in November of last year, a month before the Kuwaiti oil company had first turned to the United States and the Soviet Union. Murphy interpreted this Kuwaiti overture to the Soviets as having been inspired by the news that same month that the Reagan administration had secretly sold missiles to Iran. If so, Kuwait took the initiative to bring in the Soviets in order to punish the United States for arming Iran.33

The proposed “reflagging” of only eleven Kuwaiti tankers is somewhat puzzling. Most of Kuwait’s oil is transported in Kuwaiti-chartered foreign tankers or in ships chartered by its overseas customers. Nothing is being said about protecting these tankers not bearing the US flag. Kuwait either cares only for its own, or its eleven tankers are merely an introduction to something more.

Let us recall: the “tanker war” had been going on, more and more ferociously, for over three years. In all these years, only seven Kuwaiti-owned tankers had been hit by Iran.34 Well over 95 percent of the Gulf’s oil had been reaching customers around the world. No US ship had been touched before the attack on the Stark. Secretary of State Shultz has affirmed that Iran had “respected” the “American presence.” All this time no one in Washington had thought that the shipment of oil from Kuwait was so endangered that it was necessary to do anything to protect our “vital interests,” “national security,” or to save us from the “Soviet threat.”

The rest is hallucinatory. On May 17 the US frigate Stark was hit by an Iraqi missile in the Persian Gulf. But this shot was heard in Washington as if it had come from an Iranian missile. Not so long ago the Reagan administration had sold missiles to Iran for use against Iraq. Now it was Iraq’s turn to be protected against Iran. By some political prestidigitation, an Iraqi missile provided the occasion for a hasty decision to plunge the United States into the midst of the conflict on the side of Iraq—in fact if not in name.

That the decision was precipitous there can be no doubt. First it was decided to put the American flag on eleven tankers of Iraq’s ally, Kuwait—originally a Kuwaiti idea, not an American one. This step led to the next one—protection of the tankers by a much stronger US military “presence” in the region. Only after making these decisions was any thought given to what the risks were, what methods should be employed, and whether the whole enterprise was practicable at all.


Without any practical policy in sight, we are being fed dubious statistical propaganda about the indispensability of Gulf oil. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan writes luridly that “the West risks losing control of two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. The great geo-political prize of the twentieth century is now in their [Soviet] grasp.”35 Another Persian Gulf warrior, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, has obviously used a similar source: “Access to Persian Gulf oil reserves, which contain two-thirds of the free world’s proven reserves, is the principal stake in southwest Asia.”36

The emphasis on “reserves” implies that we are supposed to be worrying now about the distant future, as if we could do anything about it by putting the American flag on eleven Kuwaiti tankers. If there is an immediate risk such as Moynihan has conjured up, we are meeting it with ridiculously picayune means. Our leaders are, in effect, playing the old game of dominoes to scare us half to death in order to put across a policy that does not begin to face the horrendous crisis that allegedly awaits us.

Gulf oil is useful but hardly a matter of life or death now. It is least vital to the United States, which gets only 4 percent of its oil through the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. But even if the Strait of Hormuz were closed, the cutback in oil shipments could be readily compensated for by another of our friends in the area—none other than Saudi Arabia. A recent study of the Gulf states points out:

A cut-off of Gulf oil that did not include Saudi production would be ineffective, because, due to the enormous Saudi production capacity, that country alone could match most current Gulf petroleum exports. More important, Saudi Arabia is the one Arab Gulf producer that has alternative routes (i.e., non-Gulf routes) for the export of petroleum. (Saudi Arabia has opened one pipeline on the Red Sea, and will soon have a second ready for operation.) Indeed, one of the Saudi pipelines also carries Iraqi crude.37

Another authority on the world supply of oil, Professor S. Fred Singer, has pointed out:

With about one-eighth of Free World oil in gulf tanker traffic, as much as one-half of that traffic would have to be interrupted on a steady basis to make a strong impact on the price. That translates to about twenty super-tanker sinkings a week! Any lesser interruption can be made up by existing pipelines and from the excess production capacity of other suppliers—and they’ll be glad to do it.

Professor Singer goes on:

The bottom line on the benefits of avoiding modest oil-supply dislocations: hardly any for the US or its allies. The question then becomes: Is it worth risking American lives in order to lower insurance premiums for Kuwait and other gulf producers?38

If there is an acute long-term problem of oil reserves, it will have to be met in a long-term way. Much can change in the use of oil before the problem becomes acute. In any case that is no present problem, even with the Iran-Iraq war; the long-term problem is not going to be met by reflagging eleven Kuwaiti tankers or by getting enmeshed in the war. The alarm about oil reserves in the distant future is a cover for taking some immediate action that has little or no bearing on the long-term problem.

The technique of the scaremongers is to suggest that something awful is about to happen and to use veiled language that stops short of saying what they really mean—that the Persian Gulf must be made an American monopoly by any means including that of force. Senator Moynihan put it this way:

All the more reason, then, that Congress should be seen to support the policy of every American President back to Harry S. Truman. We have no choice. The Persian Gulf is vital to American interests. It is not vital to Soviet interests. We cannot accept their intrusion.39

What must we do if “we cannot accept their intrusion”? Clearly, we must expel them. And how, if we are not going to use force? Leaving aside the determination of what a “vital interest” is in these circumstances, countries have a right to use an international waterway even if they have no “vital interest” there. Incidentally, it is interesting to note how the ghost of Harry S. Truman hovers over this entire affair.

Brzezinski also uses the same semantic cover-up:

Consequently, the United States has no choice but to stand firm against any challenges in the defense of Western interests in the Persian Gulf….

The major beneficiary of a US retreat would be the Soviet Union….

The United States must do whatever is necessary to assert Western interests in the Persian Gulf—alone, if necessary. If Iran strikes American forces engaged in protecting third-party shipping in the Gulf, the United States should retaliate against Iranian military facilities and do it in a way that will be militarily decisive.40

These are weasel words for the forcible control by the United States of the Persian Gulf. The chosen enemies are both the Soviet Union and Iran. Just what “standing firm” against the Soviet Union means is left to the imagination of the reader. Since the Soviet Union has shown no signs of threatening the United States militarily in the Gulf, Brzezinski must mean that the very presence of three Soviet naval vessels in the Gulf is threatening. How he thinks it is possible to get rid of them without the use of force defies understanding. He is clearer on Iran, but only if it strikes American forces protecting third-party shipping. If non-American shipping should be struck, he fails to enlighten us on what to do about it. By the very nature of the Iranian regime and its popular support, a “militarily decisive,” retaliation is not easy to envisage. It would certainly entail more than taking out missile batteries.

But oil is covering up the real issue. Kuwait, acting for Iraq and Saudi Arabia, is really interested in something else. All three have had in mind luring the Soviet Union and the United States into intervening in the Iran-Iraq war in order to get the great powers to stop it. It is doubtful that even a rational case for stopping the war can be effective with someone like Khomeini or that the combined efforts of the two superpowers could intimidate him. In any case, Iraq and its allies need Soviet-American collaboration for their intrigue to have any chance of succeeding. Ironically, the anti-Soviet twist that the Reagan administration and its fellow travelers gave the Kuwait–Iraq–Saudi Arabia scenario is not according to their script.


If the free passage of tankers had been the real issue, it would have had to be faced long ago. It was not faced when the “tankers war” was raging, because the Iran-Iraq war was still considered to be a local quagmire that could only get worse if the great powers got into it with their own military forces. The important thing was to isolate it, until both sides dropped out from exhaustion, not to transform it into a contest between world powers.

But a number of other things had injected themselves. One was the US withdrawal from Lebanon, which alarmed the Arab states because it indicated to them that the staying power of the United States in the region was limited.41 The revelations of the Reagan administration’s secret sale of missiles to Iran were even more demoralizing, because the Arab regimes under Sunni leadership were terrified by the threatened conflagration from Iran’s militant Shi’ite fanaticism. There was also the inability of the UN’s Security Council to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire and arms embargo owing to the resistance of Iran’s ally, Communist China. Iraq, now chastened by its losses and the recognition that it could not possibly win the war, was entirely willing to accept such a resolution, leaving Iran as the real object of the arms embargo.

In these circumstances, the obvious way out for Iraq and its paymasters, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, was through the intervention of the great powers. The hopeless war, together with the oil glut, had caused a dangerous drain on their resources. From trying to keep the great powers out, Iraq–Kuwait–Saudi Arabia policy had shifted to dragging them in. The Kuwaitis have made no secret of their strategy. The New York Times correspondent in Kuwait, John Kifner, was told by Undersecretary Suleiman Majid Al-Shaheen of the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry:

We have approached all our friends. We don’t want any country to have an upper hand with Kuwait. The Soviet Union is ready to cooperate, and it is the right of any country to increase its economic activities.

Kifner added: “Mr. Shaheen, a key strategist in the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, a member of the ruling family, confirmed that a main goal of the Kuwaiti strategy was to seek an end to the war between Iran and Iraq by involving the superpowers.”42

The same Kuwaiti strategy was reported by The Washington Post’s Jonathan C. Randal on June 14. The tanker war, he noted, was “a manageable side-show” of far less significance than “Kuwait’s gamble that its ingenuity in seeking superpower protection for perhaps a third of its oil exports will force Moscow and Washington to impose an end to the nearly seven-year-old war.”

Most opportunely, an Iraqi attack on a US naval vessel gave the Reagan administration the occasion for doing what Iraq and Kuwait had long wanted it to do. The President’s major statement of May 29 did not even mention Iraq, as if it were the innocent party in the war in the Persian Gulf. Instead, the only two countries mentioned with hostility were Iran and the Soviet Union, on the assumption that they had to be prevented from imposing “their will upon the friendly Arab states of the Persian Gulf” and Iran had to be deterred from blocking “the free passage of neutral shipping.”43

Here was Iraq, which had not only been at least as guilty as Iran in blocking the free passage of shipping in the Gulf, but had declared a “free-fire” or “exclusion” zone on the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf in which it felt free to attack any vessel, even a US warship. The Iraqi pilot who had attacked the frigate Stark was proudly said to be a veteran who had to his credit fifteen successful missile attacks on Iranian tankers. Kuwait, the most active ally of Iraq, was now, however, reclassified by the United States as “neutral.” In effect, President Reagan implicitly put the United States on the side of Iraq and its Kuwait–Saudi Arabia allies.

One of the typically doctrinal aspects of this whole affair is the buildup of the Soviet threat. There surely have been Soviet threats, but this one is not like any other. When Secretary Shultz said, “We don’t have any desire to see the Soviets assume a role in the Persian Gulf,” he was apparently oblivious to or willing to ignore the fact that the Soviets had assumed a role at the behest of our present associates. After all, our latest ward, Kuwait, had brought in the Soviets by getting them to lease it tankers. Iraq had brought in the Soviets by making them one of its major arms suppliers. The entire game played by Iraq and Kuwait had depended on getting Soviet aid in order to inveigle the United States to do the same things for them—or more.

It is absurd to link Iran and the Soviet Union, as if they were confederates in a plot to block free passage of the Gulf. Iran showed its displeasure with the Soviet Union last September when an Iranian naval vessel boarded a Soviet arms ship and impounded it temporarily in an Iranian port. Two Soviet merchant ships have been attacked, one by Iranian forces with antitank rocket-propelled grenades from a speedboat, and another hit by a mine. Iran is backed by Communist China, which is hardly the Soviets’ current favorite. It was the suppression of the Iranian Communists in 1983 that turned the Soviet Union against Iran. The Muslim fanaticism across the Soviet border in Iran is an infection that the Soviet Union would gladly keep out. Even more absurdly, the United States and the Soviet Union have been holding discussions for months at the United Nations on ways to bring the Iran-Iraq war to a close. If there is to be any UN resolution or action, Soviet cooperation is indispensable, and denouncing the Soviets for trying to impose their will on the Gulf states is no way to get it.

These discussions at the UN would be incomprehensible if the United States and the Soviet Union did not have a common interest in restoring peace in the Persian Gulf. Yet Assistant Secretary Murphy could not see that the Soviet Union has a vital interest in the area. When it was pointed out to him that the Persian Gulf was only 800 miles from the Soviet Union and about 7,000 miles from the United States, he maintained that “it is our vital interest, not their vital interest” because of Western dependence on the oil that passes through it.44 It did not seem to occur to Secretary Murphy that there is more than one kind of vital interest and that oil is not the be-all and end-all of international relations.

We should not be too hard on Secretary Murphy, however, because he has on other occasions blurted out more of the truth than other officials have done. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 29 that “what is driving our policy at this point” is that “we don’t want the Soviets to get a handle on a vital lifeline” of the world’s oil supply. Whatever “handle” may mean here, we should be grateful for being told that what has been driving our policy is anti-Soviet in motivation.

Murphy is also the one who got into trouble for saying that there was some risk of “war” with Iran in the present US policy. He was immediately repudiated by the White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who was followed by President Reagan with an assurance that “I don’t see the danger of war. I don’t see how one could possibly start.” As if this were not confusing enough, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard L. Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 29 that “there is a risk, a very real risk” in giving US naval protection to “reflagged” Kuwaiti vessels.45 Meanwhile the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr., was insisting that the United States should not escort Kuwaiti tankers without a commitment to retaliate for any attacks on US ships.

There is something about the commitment in the Persian Gulf that brings out the worst in our highest officials. Secretary Shultz, usually a sensible person, was responsible for this recent non sequitur: “If our ships get attacked anywhere, including the Persian Gulf, we will defend ourselves. That’s not going to war with somebody. That’s defending ourselves.”46 Such attacks and counterattacks are just what acts of war are, whether they are called defensive or offensive. There would be few wars in history if all those who claimed to be fighting “defensive wars” were absolved from fighting wars.


The question for policy makers is not merely “what” but “how.” It is a good rule especially in international affairs not to decide on what needs to be done until it is clear how it is going to be done and whether it can be done successfully. It is especially important to decide for ourselves and not because others have drawn us in by putting out bait for us to snap at. The Kuwaiti ruse of first going to the Soviet Union for assistance and then getting the Reagan administration to bid up for Kuwait’s favor is a ludicrous example of rising to the bait.

It has not always been so.

We were once saved from getting embroiled in Vietnam for the very reason that the “what” did not come before and without the “how.” The time was 1954 after the French disaster at Dienbienphu. The crisis then in Vietnam was far more advanced than it is now in the Persian Gulf. President Eisenhower did not want the Viet Minh, as the Vietnamese Communists were called, to prevail. But he was up against domino thinking, including his own, which, as a recent study has put it, “demanded that victory be denied the Viet Minh.”47 Though Eisenhower had made up his mind against putting US ground forces into Vietnam, he was equivocal about other forms of military aid to the French. His method of operation was to commission studies and encourage his top aides to debate the issues. Eisenhower let this process of pondering the means and consequences go on for months.

The main military advocate of all-out US intervention was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur Radford. The main military objector was Army Chief of Staff Matthew B. Ridgway. The latter sent an Army team of experts in every field to study the problem on the ground. Ridgway concluded that “we could have fought in Indo-China. We could have won, if we had been willing to pay the tremendous cost in men and money that such intervention would have required.”48 Ridgway claims that Eisenhower quickly decided against intervention when he saw the report—a version that has been challenged.49 Eisenhower was still wavering; it was at this time that he publicly spoke of the “domino principle.” Yet he was determined to take no action that both the Republican and Democratic leadership would not endorse and that did not have both French and British support. After Dienbienphu fell, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a little-known retreat from domino thinking: “We do not want to operate on what has been referred to as the domino theory, where the loss of one area will topple another and another.” Still, after all the hesitation and uncertainty, the United States was saved for a decade from the gratuitous bloodletting and humiliation of the Vietnam War.

In the case of the Persian Gulf, there was no prior attempt to consult or get agreement with the Republican and Democratic leadership. A policy was announced before the policy makers had any idea of how to carry it out or what the cost would be. After deciding on the policy, they have made a pretense of seeking allies in Western Europe to participate in it with us, knowing full well that our closest allies there had no intention of sharing in our folly. We are again rushing headlong toward tragedy in a part of the world that the United States can influence little and knows little how to influence. The highest officials of the land are so ill-prepared for defending or even explaining the policy that they have not satisfied even their supporters that they know what they are doing.


The entire US policy in the Persian Gulf has been bedeviled by an infernal confusion of motives.

One is that we wish to protect Kuwaiti tankers with the US flag and warships. Another is that we wish to ensure “free navigation” in the Gulf for all ships of all nations because it is an international waterway. A third is that we wish to prevent Soviet domination of the Gulf and, in an even more extreme version of this aim, to exclude the Soviets from the Gulf altogether.

The first aim, to protect Kuwaiti tankers, would be accomplished if we succeeded in the second—to ensure the free passage of all shipping of all nations. Ironically, we would also protect the tankers of Iran, which need protection the most. These aims are specific and limited, and they depend above all on the cooperation of all interested nations, including the Soviets, for which reason we have been seeking agreement with them at the United Nations. These aims do not involve a struggle for power in the Persian Gulf between the United States and the Soviet Union. The third aim, however, is very different in kind. It implies that only the United States has the right to send warships into the Persian Gulf or play a “role” in it.

The third aim is a sure recipe for disaster. The Soviet Union cannot be expelled from the Gulf without the use of force, which has been ruled out by the President and our highest officials. No other nation can support us in an effort to make an international waterway into an American or even Western military lake. Yet by turning an incident brought about by an Iraqi missile into an anti-Soviet crusade, we have been begging for failure and embarrassment. We are heading into the wrong confrontation at the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason. The confusion is now immense, and the first step out of this morass is to clarify what we really want and what we really can do.

It will not help to remind us that we are a “world power,” as Professor Brzezinski has recently done. To persuade us that the United States should “assert Western interests in the Persian Gulf—alone, if necessary,” he has instructed us: “We must recognize that the United States holds the status of a world power, and our allies are simply regional powers.”50 This distinction is not original with Brzezinski; it should have been copyrighted by his predecessor, Henry Kissinger.51

The term “world power” is a snare and a delusion if it is taken to mean that the United States has the power to decide matters all over the world. We are obviously stronger in some places than in others, and in some places we are not strong at all. North Vietnam was a tenthrate “regional power,” but it was in the right place with the right strength at the right time. Our European allies are much closer to the Persian Gulf; they have a much greater stake in Middle East oil. They refuse to get embroiled with us not because they are “regional powers” and do not have sufficient military strength to act but because it makes no sense to them to intervene in the Iran-Iraq war or seek a showdown with the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf. What separates us from them is policy, not power.

The words “Truman Doctrine” and “world power” seem to have a hypnotic effect. They resemble the slogan about “standing tall,” which made voters for Reagan feel better, stronger, and more patriotic, no matter that the words are almost empty of political content and no guide to what the country’s real problems and capabilities are.

The way to begin putting ourselves back onto some rational and practical course in the Persian Gulf is to recognize that we have been pursuing two contradictory policies.

Until the Stark was hit, our policy was based on ensuring free passage of the waterway with the cooperation of the Soviet Union. We were not interested in taking sides in the Iran-Iraq war or using force to gain our ends. We did not whip up a storm of anxiety about the threat to our security, our peace, and our freedom. We understood that the war was between two regimes that had nothing in common with us and were almost equally detestable. We did not expect that it would be easy or quick to achieve our ends in these unpleasant circumstances, but there was no reason to believe that Western civilization hung in the balance in this struggle to the death between Saddam Hussein and Khomeini.

As soon as the Stark was hit, this policy gave way to one virtually its opposite. We began to take the side of Iraq against Iran—without, of course, admitting it. Our very security, peace, and freedom were said to be endangered. We cast about for a quick fix for a nasty, little war. We suddenly made the Soviet Union the enemy—or at least the obstacle—in the Persian Gulf. Our secretary of state permitted himself to rule out any Soviet “role” in the Gulf. Supporters of the new line took to accusing the Soviets of unacceptable “intrusion” in an international waterway, as if it was necessary to expel them. Suddenly, acts of war such as preemptive strikes—defensive or otherwise—were on front pages.

There was no need to make this bewildering flip-flop. If we are a “world power,” we should have enough staying power to outlast the temporary damage that these unpleasant belligerents may inflict. If Ronald Reagan goes the way of Lyndon Johnson, he will preside over another orgy of squandering lives, power, prestige, and self-respect.

June 18, 1987


An editorial in The Washington post of June 11, 1987, vividly illustrates the strange lapse of cogency which has characterized the Persian Gulf controversy:

The Red Navy has made a historic leap into a region from which it has been the Western strategic purpose for a century or more to exclude a Russian/Soviet presence. This leap created an absolute requirement for any would-be great power to offset the new Soviet presence—not to be careless, but to act. Instinctively and intellectually the Allies understood this large requirement; that is why, nervous as they may be about Mr. Reagan, they accept his reflagging.

The facts here are as dubious as the reasoning. The historic Russian leap into the region was made long before the Red Navy in 1987. Persia (as Iran was called) was coveted by Peter the Great. After decades of British-Russian rivalry, both powers agreed to spheres of influence in Persia in a famous agreement of 1907. Without going more fully into the history, it is enough to say that all efforts to “exclude” the Russian-Soviet “presence” in the region have not succeeded for along. Geography has included Russia, with its long border with Iran, in the region. If there is a relative newcomer, it is the United States.

The editorial also implies that “reflagging” is in some way a means of offsetting the new Soviet presence. It is nothing of the sort. If that had been Kuwait’s intention, it would not have asked for Soviet protection. Reflagging is a tactic for getting both the Soviet Union and the United States embroiled in the Iran-Iraq conflict. Such as editorial in a major newspaper shows how little prepared intellectually even our pundits are for this affair.

This Issue

July 16, 1987