Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment: Americans tend to examine distant regimes, and the commitments our government has made to them, only during times of crisis…

Americans tend to examine distant regimes, and the commitments our government has made to them, only during times of crisis.

Americans tend to examine distant regimes, and the commitments our government has made to them, only during times of crisis. About Iraq, for instance, we have suddenly been told that its leader, Saddam. Hussein, has emerged as the Hitler of the Middle East, a ruthless bully who wants to take over the entire region, and thus threatens America’s “way of life.” It is to prevent this, we are told, that American forces are being rushed to Saudi Arabia.

Americans should not be embarrassed at having been taken by surprise by the emergence of this Hitler. Only last year, after all, Hussein was the beneficiary of loans from the United States that enabled him to import more than a billion dollars’ worth of American farm goods. (Iraq was the world’s second-largest recipient of Department of Agriculture credits, after Mexico.) Indeed, only days before Hussein invaded Kuwait, officials of the Bush Administration were lobbying congressmen who had been angered by his bellicose language toward Israel and his dismal human-rights record to persuade them not to apply sanctions to Iraq. And, though American officials from President Bush on down have lost no opportunity since the beginning of the crisis to remind the world of Hussein’s “ruthlessness” in using poison gas, when Hussein was actually using it-against the Iranian “human wave” attacks, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War-officials of the Reagan Administration were remarkably muted in their condemnations.

Hussein, of course, did not change overnight into a ruthless tyrant; what changed was the attitude of the United States toward him. And that change casts doubt on the observation, so frequently made during the last weeks, that the events that sent American forces to Saudi Arabia constitute “the first crisis of the post-Cold War era.”

In reality, despite the altered nature of our relationship with the Soviet Union, the thinking that has driven our policy toward Iraq is profoundly imbued with Cold War attitudes. Those attitudes can be summarized in a Middle Eastern saying that has been much quoted lately: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Looking back, one can see that the tragedy of American policy during the Cold War lay not in the country’s choice of enemies but in the damage it repeatedly inflicted on itself -practically and morally-by its choice of friends.

In the nineteen-eighties, Iran was an enemy of the United States, and for that reason Iraq, which in 1980 invaded Iran, became its friend. The United States shared intelligence with the Iraqi military-including, it is said, sensitive satellite photographs of the deployment of Iranian forces. It organized and led a worldwide arms embargo against Iran while doing nothing to prevent Iraq from arming itself with the most modern weapons. Finally, during the “tanker war” of 1987 and 1988, the United States sent its warships into the Persian Gulf to protect the tankers of Iraq’s closest ally, the rich sheikhdom of Kuwait.

Kuwait had chosen to ally itself with Iraq for the same “enemy of my enemy” reasons that the United States had. Ayatollah Khomeini had been calling on the Shia Muslims and other downtrodden elements within Kuwait to overthrow their masters and install an Islamic government. Therefore, Iran was Kuwait’s enemy, and since Iraq was fighting a desperate war against Iran, Kuwait supported, with billions of dollars in loans and credits, the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Together, Kuwait and the United States did much to create Hussein: they did not make him ruthless or brutalhe was already both-but they made him powerful. They helped him buy an army of a million men and an arsenal of sophisticated weapons, and they sustained him during the darkest hours of the war. Kuwait acted because it feared for the stability of its regime, with all its inequalities, in the face of Khomeini’s revolutionary call. Instead, Kuwait might have tried to strengthen itself by reforming its autocracy, by giving some voice and power to those people who were most attracted by Khomeini. But it was easier, less painful, to give money to Saddam Hussein and let him silence Khomeini’s appeal.

As for the United Statesthe protector of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states-it might have urged Kuwait to liberalize, might have sought to shore up its ally by insisting on reform, just as it might have done with the Shah, or Somoza, or any number of other convenient and now forgotten allies. But the United States chose to exert even less influence on the domestic policies of its allies in the Gulf than it had on the policies of the Shah. It chose, rather, to join the Kuwaiti sheikhs in supporting a dictator who, with his tanks and poison gas, could check the threat from Khomeini’s Iran. Such missed opportunities characterize decades of Cold War thinking.

After the war ended, Hussein, with a huge army to keep busy, and enormous war debts to pay off, turned to Iraq’s historical claims on wealthy Kuwait. When, more than a week before the invasion, he massed tanks and troops on Kuwait’s border, the United States hardly responded. In the end, the invasion of Kuwait was permitted to happen because the one nation that might have been able to prevent itby restationing aircraft carriers, by “showing resolve” — could not bring itself to believe that the monster it had helped create would turn against one of its creators. By the time American officials had got over their astonishment, Iraqi troops were looting Kuwait’s central bank.

It was only then-and with an exaggerated determination, meant to compensate for the initial misjudgment -that aircraft carriers and troops were sent. President Bush, angry at what he saw as a betrayal, offered uncompromising words (“This will not stand”), uncompromising terms (Hussein must withdraw at once from Kuwait), and a barrage of rhetoric implying that an American attack could come at any time. And yet it does not seem likely that such threats, even in conjunction with the United Nations embargo and the presence of more than forty-five thousand American troops in Saudi Arabia, will be enough to make Hussein withdraw with nothing to show for his efforts.

It may be that there is no way to achieve President Bush’s stated objectives- — not to mention his implied one of unseating Hussein-short of a direct attack on Iraqi forces. And it is anyone’s guess what such an attack might lead to. Nonetheless, the airwaves have been filled with familiar voices warning that a failure to force

Hussein from Kuwait would undermine American credibility. “We cannot, after the deployment into the Gulf, march out of the Gulf without having achieved these objectives,” Henry Kissinger says. “The consequence of a setback would be disastrous.”

Such words from current and former high officials are hardly new; they are almost ritual Cold War locutions. Nor is this the first time that an American President has become disenchanted with an erstwhile friend-General Noriega, his present obscurity notwithstanding, is a recent example, and President Diem, in South Vietnam, a more distant one-or the first time that American soldiers have found themselves in a far-off place preparing to defend still unclear notions of credibility and resolve. If Americans have learned anything, it is that those notions are not a very good basis on which to begin a war whose duration and intensity are impossible to predict. Amid all the talk of Hussein’s ruthlessness, there has been very little discussion of the way American policy helped him acquire the powerful forces he now commands, of what led him to invade Kuwait, and of what it will really take -and what it is really worth, in American lives and treasure-to get him out. Such discussions on the part of our leaders might begin to guide us toward true post-Cold War thinking. We will know we have achieved that kind of thinking if under some future American foreign policy the description “enemy of my enemy” no longer qualifies a brutal and dangerous dictator to be an American friend.