George Bush
George Bush; drawing by David Levine


With the end of the cold war and the onset of the Gulf crisis, the United States can now test the validity of the Wilsonian concept of collective security—a test which an automatic Soviet veto in the Security Council has precluded for the past forty years.

The administration first began such a test when, on August 2, the day of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, it successfully sponsored a Security Council resolution finding that invasion “a breach of international security.” That finding met the formal precondition for invoking the mandatory enforcement machinery of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

Then, without waiting for that machinery to take effect, the administration responded to an urgent Saudi request for help by deploying forces under the asserted authority of Article 51 of the Charter, which reserves the right for nations to take actions of “individual or collective self-defense…until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

The administration maintained that juridical position only briefly; it quickly found that it could enlist the support of other nations only by following the carefully calibrated step-by-step arrangements provided by Articles 39 through 42 of the Charter. So, redefining its procedural grounds for action, it joined with other Security Council members to obtain resolutions nullifying the annexation of Kuwait, demanding the freeing of foreign nationals, calling for economic sanctions as an enforcement measure, and if those sanctions proved ineffective, even authorizing member states to use limited military force.

Although the administration’s activities up to this point were beyond reproach, our government now made what, in my view, was the first of two tactical errors. In moving to defend Saudi Arabia it should have avoided the impression that the enterprise was primarily an American project. Presumably the President was so impressed by fear of an imminent Iraqi move toward the Saudi oil fields that he seems to have given a free hand to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As might have been expected, they did what came naturally.

Keenly aware that they were more likely to be blamed for positioning inadequate forces than for providing an excess of force, the Joint Chiefs displayed spectacular speed, putting in place in three weeks forces and equipment equivalent to those America in 1950 had taken three months to deploy in South Korea.

To many experts outside the government that vast armada seemed excessive. America, they thought, could have halted the extension of Iraq’s aggression by maintaining its naval blockade, deploying at least two aircraft carriers with planes equipped for heavy bombing, and limiting ground deployments in Saudi Arabia to probably not more than an armored brigade—a headquarters plus five battalions, or a total (including support personnel) of little more than five thousand men.

Such a collection of forces, air, sea, and ground, should have been sufficient to halt any further Iraqi adventure toward the Saudi oil fields both by its own ability to destroy tanks and its operation as a tripwire that would, when and if necessary, summon the vast deployment that prematurely occurred.

But with each branch of the US armed services vying for a role in the action the deployment developed a momentum of its own. As a result the force finally deployed was equipped not merely for defense but was also capable of offensive action against Kuwait and Iraq. As an exercise in rapid deployment, it demonstrated logistic virtuosity, but the pouring in of such a vast number of American military personnel was costly in more ways than financial. It unduly disrupted the civilian life of America, and thus made it difficult to sustain a long waiting period while the blockade proved its worth. It restricted diplomatic flexibility and exacerbated political hostility in a part of the Middle East highly sensitive to historical, ethnic, and religious tensions.

The administration’s second error, in addition to overdeployment, was its failure to follow the course provided by the UN Charter and secure a resolution under Article 43 that would create a true United Nations force under the United Nations military staff committee.

Using the Charter’s procedures to create such a force would have avoided the need for America to spend its political capital in a nation-by-nation solicitation in order to improvise the current fragile coalition. It would also have saved the administration from the humiliating position of begging other nations to finance the baggage train for what appeared to be a uniquely American initiative. Under Article 43, reinforced by Article 25, each member nation would have been legally bound to heed the Security Council’s call for fighting forces and equipment while the Council could have assessed expenses under an agreed and equitable formula. Thus, instead of our country having to appear as a mendicant seeking military and financial assistance, the United Nations Security Council would have done that work for it.


Moreover, paradoxical as it may sound, the creation of a United Nations force would have provided a more effective command structure. A combined staff, at least nominally responsible to a reconstituted United Nations Military Committee, might, for example, have consisted of generals from America, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and possibly Morocco. Unlike the present potpourri of national forces, it could provide a centralized operation. As a disproportionately large contributor to the common effort, the administration could almost certainly have arranged for an American general to exercise overall command just as General Eisenhower did in Operation Overlord, while leaving specific responsibilities for carrying out assigned missions to national commanders. An instructive example is the invasion of South Korea in 1950, where the authorizing resolution (passed by the General Assembly rather than the Security Council) called on the members to provide “military forces and other assistance” for a “unified command under the United States” and authorized the use of the blue and white United Nations flag.

In the current Gulf crisis, the presence of a United Nations flag would probably have provided some credible insulation from critics of the US while also making possible an authorized central command. So far more than 200,000 troops have been provided by eleven countries, while close to one hundred ships are on hand from fourteen nations and the skies are filled with a mixed bag of aircraft provided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, Canada, and Britain. Since much of the ground equipment used by the Syrians is of Soviet origin, it is indistinguishable from the equipment of Iraq, so that great care must be taken to prevent carnage from “friendly fire.”

Current improvised arrangements for command and control are a tangled web. They call for the Saudi army commander to coordinate maneuvers among the Arab forces in the country. Under an agreement worked out between King Fahd and Secretary of State Baker on November 4, an offensive launched from Saudi soil against Iraqi troops or against Iraq would be undertaken only after President Bush and King Fahd had both approved it. Yet once the two leaders had authorized an attack, the American forces would be free to operate entirely under their own commander without interference from the Saudi military.

On the other hand, if Iraq should attack Saudi Arabia and a defensive operation were necessary, the joint command structure set up when American troops first began arriving would remain in force. That means that the United States commander would consult with his Saudi counterparts over “joint tactical decisions.”

The British air and land forces will come under tactical US control, but the French units will remain independent. European NATO and French naval units will be controlled by a coordinating group operating through the Western European Union, while US units will retain their own chain of command. Though there has been some effort to improvise arrangements to bring all units under effective US control, they are at best hasty contrivances that suffer from a lack of legitimacy.

Were an all-out shooting war to develop, such a diffusion of command could produce major gaffes, with troops of the coalition including Americans likely to fire on units from other coalition members, and in the confusion aircraft might well shoot down friendly aircraft. The problem of identification is not helped since the aircraft on each side may be of American, British, French, or Soviet origin. Under the circumstances, command and control could well disintegrate in the event of actual combat.

America’s insistent visibility is also a problem, for most people in Europe and the Middle East now take it for granted that the United States has assumed the defense of Saudi Arabia as its own project—an attitude many Arabs interpret as meaning that, if America should have its way, the “new world order” to be built in the region would strongly resemble an American protectorate.

The Costs of Unilateralism

What penalties is the United States likely to pay for its insistence on acting unilaterally?

An increasing number of Arabs cynically believe that America is pursuing its own imperialistic objectives to gain effective dominance of Middle East energy resources. They see us fighting to defend a handful of nations lucky enough to be located on vast oil riches even though the elite of those nations squander their wealth in conspicuous consumption, hiding it in Swiss numbered accounts or investing as much as $200 billion outside the Middle East—in the United States, Japan, and Europe—while making little effort to improve the lot of their poor Arab brothers.

This suspicion is intensified by the realization that the increase in oil prices caused by the crisis is variously estimated to provide Saudi Arabia and the emirates with either $6 billion per month or $30 billion per year in windfall profits in addition to what they would be receiving in a more tranquil time. Why should they not be expected to distribute some of this to their Arab brethren in countries made poorer by the crisis—such for example, as Jordan and Egypt?


America’s behavior also leads many Arabs to suspect that America is bent on blocking political progress in the region. Though talking incessantly of democracy, our country concentrates huge forces to defend a handful of authoritarian regimes and absolute monarchies. No wonder America appears to many Arabs as playing the old imperial game of defending dynastic regimes in order to discourage political developments that might challenge what they perceive as America’s ambitions for influence or limited hegemony.

That some of the dynastic regimes, for example Kuwait’s, have been more tolerant and less brutal than the Baathist and other regimes that claim to be modern has not changed the perception of Arabs who resent the traditional privileged rulers of the Gulf states. Today Saddam Hussein is exploiting such feelings of jealousy and resentment of America by appealing to the Arab peoples over the heads of their governments.

As a people haunted by their own turbulent history, many Arabs instinctively view our present policies as one more example of Christian and Jewish infidels from the West waging war against Islam. Although Saddam Hussein has held power as the head of a secular police state he is trying with some success to stir up the religious passions inherent in that conception.

It also seems likely that in a few months frictions over culture and customs may arise between American GIs and the Saudis. One does not have to be unduly pessimistic to anticipate the difficulties that sandstorms in January, the observance of the Ramadan fast in March, the pilgrimage to Mecca called “the hajj” in June, and the advent of the sacred month of Muharram in July will make in the lives of our deployed forces. Throughout the Middle East most Muslims instinctively resent the presence of an infidel army in the country recognized as the protector of Holy Places.

Finally, by far the most damaging aspect of the US position is the hypocrisy the Arabs perceive in America’s complaisant attitude toward Israel and its favoritism of that country over other Middle Eastern states.

Although the administration repeatedly denies that there is any parallel between Iraq’s overrunning of Kuwait and Israel’s occupation and progressive absorption not only of the West Bank and Gaza but also of East Jerusalem, few other governments agree. Successive American administrations have defended their position by contending that Israel’s occupation of lands which contain one and a half million Palestinians was not an act of aggression but merely a defensive operation during the 1967 War when Israel was willfully attacked by Arab forces. But the US has undermined its own position by saying both that it supports the UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal and that it wants a negotiated settlement, while at the same time failing to bring any serious pressure to bear on Israel to move toward either goal.

The Blockade

Since as a private citizen I am no longer privy to American intelligence findings, I cannot independently appraise the administration’s repeated assertion that the blockade is already showing significant effects. Press accounts suggest that there is still an adequate supply of food, while the shortage of spare parts now beginning to appear can no doubt be at least partially offset by cannibalizing existing machines. I am also skeptical that we will be able to maintain the blockade as broadly and for as long as many would like.

Our efforts to deny food imports to Iraq and Kuwait violate our reputation as a civilized people. Our actions recall the cast of mind of a feudal baron besieging a castle by starving out its defenders. Although President Bush belatedly made it clear in his October 1 speech to the United Nations that the United States will permit food shipments so long as their distribution is adequately monitored by organizations such as the Red Cross, Saddam Hussein is reportedly refusing to accord the appropriate United Nations committee the right to monitor deliveries. It seems doubtful that this deadlock can be broken without forcing some reexamination of our nation’s policy.

That, of course, is not the only problem presented by a food blockade. It seems likely that, in spite of his recent assurances, Saddam Hussein will impose more stringent restrictions on the food allotted the foreign hostages he holds than on that allotted his own people. At the same time, by blocking all but minimal rations to the emigrant workers from third world countries and even shutting off the food supplies sent by those nations to help their own citizens, our blockade of food imports could be used by Saddam Hussein to intensify the charges of inhumanity that would be made by third world countries and to deflect the charges against his own regime.

According to reports from hostages who have been released, some of the remaining American hostages have been treated by Saddam Hussein in ways that have brought them “to the end of their tether.” If he ever should display on television to the American people a picture of American hostages about to die from hunger as a result of our blockade, one could expect conflicting reactions. The friends and relatives of the hostages would likely demand an immediate change in the blockade strategy; another larger (though not necessarily politically stronger) faction might translate their feelings of grief, fury, and frustration into a demand for prompt and brutal attacks on Iraq, even though that would put the hostages in greater jeopardy.

The Resort to Offensive Military Action

What are the chances that the embargo will fail and what effect would that have on the unity of the coalition?

Of those two questions the first is the harder to answer. By studying the world’s repeated experience with economic blockades, economists can roughly measure how long it may take for an airtight blockade to reduce the level of consumption in an offending country. But no expert can predict how low an economy must sink before hardship forces a regime to make a costly political decision; there are far too many variables and too many subjective elements to consider. Experience has made clear, however, that one should never push an enemy against a locked door unless one is prepared to use all necessary force to destroy him.

Our blockade cannot be expected to produce the desired political objective unless it is accompanied by diplomacy that may provide Saddam Hussein some means of reversing course without completely losing face. Thus we might rule out the hope of gaining our objectives through economic pressures alone and yet still hope that such pressures might be effective if combined with imaginative diplomacy.

Meanwhile, we can expect that the blockade will progressively weaken. More and more members of the diverse anti-Iraq coalition may well make private deals with Iraq to purchase its oil, while, and following longstanding Middle East traditions, corrupt deals can make it possible to arrange export channels so secret and devious that they cannot be traced.

Several nations that have supplied troops have indicated with greater or less finality that, while their troops would support the blockade they would be reluctant to take part in an actual military conflict on the side of the United States against an Arab country. Some have flatly said they would not do so. How quickly the coalition might unravel would depend to a large extent on whether our coalition partners believed that Iraq’s conduct had provided a fully adequate provocation for a military attack or suspected that America, out of impatience, had contrived a factitious justification for such an attack.

The differing motives of the nation members of the coalition need closer examination than they have had so far.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s motives are obvious; the monarch was badly shaken by fear that Iraq might seize or destroy its oil wells and other wealth and overthrow its rule. The emirates in the Gulf and sultanate of Oman almost automatically followed Saudi leadership.

In coming to Saudi Arabia’s defense, the Bush administration has repeatedly stated that if the blockade should fail to produce the required political result our forces would then launch offensive operations—even though that could do irreparable damage to the coalition.

Unless it has the full and open support from its coalition partners, which will be difficult to obtain, the US would by likely to face a “no-win” situation if it took the offensive. Should America win decisively (which is highly doubtful) most of the Arab nations would probably express or imply their shock and revulsion that a huge Western power was brutally attacking another Arab state, using its wealth and modern weaponry to kill thousands of Arabs.

If, on the other hand, our country should fail to win decisively and became enmeshed in a protracted struggle, our prestige would shrink precipitously as the Arabs assessed our impotence. We could not be sure even of Saudi support; indeed there is evidence that some influential members of the royal family are already rethinking the wisdom of their audacious move in inviting the major infidel power to intervene in their affairs. There is an apparent generational gap, with the older Saudi princes retaining their traditional suspicions of Western interference, while some of the younger princes welcome the prospective destruction of Iraq.

After all, as some of the Saudi leaders have implied, they asked us to intervene only to protect them against the Iraqis. If instead we should take offensive action they might deny us the right to launch such operations from their soil. Our limited mandate was to protect the Saudi state, not kill other Arabs.


Egypt’s motives are different. Probably the major factor in Egypt’s case is its desperate economic condition, made worse by Saddam’s action, which has deprived it of a flow of income from Egyptian nationals working in the oil fields of Iraq and Kuwait. Mubarak’s regime dare not risk its annual subsidy from America or America’s proposal to forgive $7 billion of its debts, so it must show the flag when America takes a strong position.

Mubarak would also like Egypt to regain its traditional leadership of the Arab world, and he sees Saddam Hussein as a rival. Saddam deeply embarrassed Mubarak by publicly assuring him that Iraq would not invade Kuwait, then brazenly doing so the next day.

But in spite of these motives I think it doubtful that we could expect much help from the twenty thousand Egyptian troops now being put in place or from the additional troops promised at the end of October. Some statements by Egyptian officials suggest that if the standoff should produce a shooting war, it would not participate.


Turkey’s position is more complicated. President Ozal is eager for Turkey to gain Western recognition, since he dearly hopes that his country’s application for membership in the European Community will be accepted. He still likes to think of Turkey as the bridge between the West and the Middle East, and the costs to Turkey of a blockade have seemed a reasonable price to pay in pursuit of that ambition, particularly because Ozal is counting on Turkey’s costs being repaid by the Arab oil producers. But an American-led offensive would have a chilling effect on Turkey’s current zeal.


Syria’s position reflects Hafiz al-Assad’s intense hatred of Saddam Hussein, whom he sees as his principal rival for Arab leadership. Syria supported Iran in its war against Iraq. It pursues a longstanding quasi-theological quarrel with the Iraqis over Baathist doctrine, and the distractions of the Gulf crisis provided him with the opportunity to seize virtually unchallenged control of Lebanon as a step toward the realization of a Greater Syria.

Obviously Assad would be strongly drawn to helping US efforts to bring down Saddam Hussein. Yet, since he is no longer receiving large amounts of Soviet arms, it seems highly unlikely that he would commit his armed forces to an all-out war.


Morocco has sent a small contingent which may rise in size to as many as seven thousand, but it seems clear that King Hassan regards them merely as defensive forces and would not commit them to an offensive strike at Iraq.


Of all the Arab countries other than Kuwait that Saddam Hussein’s aggression has affected, Jordan has been the most badly injured and unfairly treated. Americans have regarded King Hussein both as a friend and a moderating influence in the Middle East, and they have encouraged his efforts to transform an absolute regime into a constitutional monarchy. Yet—to our great shame—few Americans have shown sympathy for, or even the slightest understanding of, his suffocating problems.

Not only is Jordan’s principal trading partner Iraq, but it is the victim of its own tragic geographical location. Jordan lies between one enemy, Israel, on the west and Iraq on the east, with Syria constantly threatening it from the north. Like Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, it has for years depended for survival on subsidies from the rich oil-producing states. Between 1978 and 1988 the Arab states pledged billions to Jordan, yet Qatar and Abu Dhabi stopped making payments on their pledge as early as 1983, Algeria made only one payment, and Libya never paid at all. When King Hussein in desperation appealed to the emir of Kuwait to help him meet his country’s $6 billion deficit, the emir is reported to have dismissed him with a rude rebuff, “It’s your fault,” he is quoted as saying. “You’re not a Gulf state. You’re not an oil-producing state. Why do you have these ambitious development plans, the universities and all that? You can’t afford them.”

Jordan is in a particularly unhappy position because it has heavily depended not only on Arab subsidies but on the flow of remittances from its citizens working in the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil fields. Now the Saudis have turned bitterly against King Hussein for his failure to join in their defense, and they have stopped supplying Jordan with oil. Thus, instead of a flow of subsidies and remittances, large numbers of third world refugees from the Kuwait and Iraqi oil fields have been crowding into Jordan, imposing staggering costs and serious disruptions of Jordanian life.

If there were ever a case where the richer countries should express their sympathy and understanding by tangible help, Jordan is clearly that case.


Several of the Arab nations included in our jerry-built coalition would find an excuse to opt out were America to initiate a military offensive against Iraq, resentfully ascribing our action to Western imperialism.

Reaction of the Soviet Union, European Coalition members, and Japan

to a Shooting War
The defecting Arab nations would quite probably be joined by several European nations and Japan on the ground that they too did not wish to be embroiled in a major military conflict, particularly if they felt that America had taken the offensive before fully exhausting the potential of diplomacy.

That probably represents the view of the Soviet Union. For it to join, as it has done, in enforcing the blockade, represented a decision that must have been painful for Gorbachev to make. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the Soviets would commit forces were the struggle to enter a shooting phase. So far, they have emphasized the necessity for a diplomatic solution and have exhausted considerable effort in trying to achieve one.

Active involvement by Soviet forces would raise disturbing echoes of the Soviets’ Afghanistan experience, while pitting the country against a nation with which it has long had an alliance. Although its views on the question have so far been somewhat cloudy, the Soviets have made clear that they could not involve their forces in active fighting without an affirmative vote of their legislature. They could easily use that as a way out.

Prime Minister Thatcher has gone far to support America’s initiative, partly in gratitude for our help in the Falklands conflict. But in contrast to her war against Argentina, she does not have a clear mandate for offensive action from her Labour opposition.

President Mitterrand made a hard decision when he joined America in the blockade, against the background of France’s fiercely independent military policy and its suspicion of America. France has now committed 14,000 troops to the region, its largest deployment since the Algerian War. Yet Mitterrand has made it clear that he believes America should fully exhaust the potential for diplomacy—which, as he sees it, we are not yet doing.

The Italian government seems split on the issue of a possible offensive military action. Prime Minister Andreotti is reputed to favor a diplomatic solution that would permit Saddam to save some face; Foreign Minister De Michelis apparently regards war as a practical necessity. No one can confidently predict how the Italian government would react in the event America should take offensive action.

Germany’s hesitations derive not merely from its restrictive constitution (which the allies imposed at the end of the Second World War) but also from the heavy burdens it is now carrying in assimilating East Germany. Up to now its participation in the embargo has been limited to a contribution of $2.1 billion. Whether that may later be augmented by units of armed forces involves the politically bitter question whether it could send troops overseas without a constitutional amendment.

Japan’s postwar constitution poses even more serious domestic obstacles to its participation in military action than is the case in Germany. For Japan to deploy forces in the Middle East would threaten a vicious split in its domestic politics as well as stimulate vestigial fears among the other South East Asian nations, which remember all too vividly the brutal behavior of the Japanese army a half century ago.

From this brief review I conclude that any shift from the economic pressures of a blockade to a military offensive would very likely drive away important elements of our tenuous coalition. At the same time, we should dispel any illusions our coalition partners may have regarding the realities of a military conflict, and sternly warn them not to indulge the comforting assumption that we could achieve the political objective we all seek merely by quick air strikes on sensitive targets.

One of the many lessons I learned as a director of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in Europe during and after World War II is that there is no such thing as a “surgical strike.” Indeed, if the medical profession adopted the standards of the Air Force, any patient seeking an appendectomy might well have his heart and brain removed, while his appendix remained intact.

Before he was discharged in September for his indiscreet talk about US war plans, the Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan told the press that the “cutting edge” of a US attack “would be in downtown Baghdad,” a city of some 4 million people, approximately 1.5 million of whom have been estimated to be fourteen years old or younger. America should not take responsibility for wiping out a considerable part of the young generation of Iraqis.

Another restraint on our ability to resolve the situation by air strikes is Saddam’s proclaimed intention to use foreign hostages as “human shields.” Although the administration insists that it will not permit the fate of the hostages to influence its tactical decisions, a single raid in which hostages were seen to be killed could send a shudder of anger and repulsion throughout America and its friends.

Both the US and its coalition members should also be aware that the Iraqis have widely dispersed their installations for building nuclear weapons. Thus there could be no easy repetition of the Israelis’ 1981 success in taking out the Osirak reactor.

Nor should one be deluded by the bland assumptions of many of our own effervescent air force generals that we should substantially discount the boasted effectiveness of Iraq’s Soviet aircraft and anti-aircraft missile defenses. The press now reports that Iraq captured from the Kuwaitis about 150 Hawk anti-aircraft missiles as well as radar equipment and is busy learning to use them effectively. Unfortunately, many of the United States planes in the area are not equipped to defeat the Hawk system.

A second lesson learned by the Bombing Survey in studying the Allies’ strategic offensive against Germany was that wars cannot be won by bombing alone. In spite of overwhelming Allied air superiority from 1943 on, the Germans were able to hold out until the summer of 1945. Quite likely the principal accomplishment of our strategic bombing offensive was to force the German Air Force to fly where our planes could shoot theirs down, thus assuring to the Allies command of the air space over the invasion route.

Finally, no one should take it for granted that air attacks necessarily erode public morale; on the contrary our experience in Germany repeatedly showed that bombing an enemy may increase the people’s determination to continue a war, particularly in highly controlled and disciplined countries.

If we cannot win our objectives solely by bombing what would be the result of using our ground forces to drive Iraq’s army out of Kuwait? There is no doubt that such an enterprise would be a thoroughly bloody affair, while quite possibly leaving our forces indefinitely bogged down and isolated in the Middle East—an experience that would evoke the same domestic anger and frustration as did our adventure in Vietnam.

One might assume, as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s elimination of other Iraqi generals (practically all of whom he has seen as would-be rivals), that the Iraqi army would lack much initiative or flexibility for offensive operations. If could, however, prove formidable in defending against any coalition drive into Kuwait. The Soviet Union’s military experts (who have throughout history designed their own strategic plans largely with defense in mind) have patiently trained Iraqi engineers in erecting fortifications and barriers. Add to that the established military principle that to be effective the offense must possess a two-to-one advantage over the defense in the number of troops, and it becomes clear that American forces could suffer catastrophic casualties, both in the first phase of combat with the second-rate formations of the Iraqi army, and then with the elite formations that had been held back for counter-attacks and other emergencies.

I can see little chance that the armored and infantry forces of the United States could avoid close combat with the Iraqis, and several military experts have expressed doubt that the forces we have sent to the Gulf are effectively prepared for the kind of warfare which open hostilities in the desert would necessarily require. The Iraqi forces are huge in number (although one million men is clearly an overstatement) and, while they are of uneven quality, a large number of them have had eight years of combat experience in desert warfare, under professional Soviet tutelage.

Our generals are, of course, eager to test their new esoteric military gadgets not only for their own information but to impress Congressional appropriations committees; yet no one really knows whether the gadgets will work as advertised under desert combat conditions.

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

This Issue

December 6, 1990