Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment: A year after the Berlin Wall was breached…

A year after the Berlin Wall was breached and the "post Cold War era" proclaimed, Americans face the prospect of a "hot war" fought against an enemy that a few months ago they didn't know they had.

YEAR after the Berlin Wall was breached and the “post Cold War era” proclaimed, Americans face the prospect of a “hot war” fought against an enemy that a few months ago they didn’t know they had. But instead of addressing such fundamental questions as what America’s real objectives in Kuwait are, and whether achieving them is worth the sacrifice of American lives, our leaders have given us a great deal of loud talk, leaving us to speculate about whether the dispatch of two hundred thousand more troops is a sign that war is inevitable or whether it’s simply a means of tightening the screws while putting off the moment of decision. The spasms of belligerence that have punctuated American policy have thus far not only failed to intimidate Saddam Hussein into relinquishing Kuwait but forced American citizens to share the predicament of the Iraqi leader: like him, they must constantly wonder, while listening to the bellicose words of the President, if this nation really means to act on them. And by cloaking his policies in rhetoric, Mr. Bush has avoided having to offer a convincing reason for Americans to undertake a war in Kuwait. To demonstrators who chanted “No blood for oil!” he angrily retorted, “Some people never get the word. The fight isn’t about oil. The fight is about naked aggression that will not stand” -as if Americans had ever agreed that whenever one nation attacks another, anywhere in the world, we should stand ready to fight and die.

Our policy in the Gulf-purportedly based on the theory that only if Hussein is convinced war is imminent can war be prevented-is in fact moving us toward war, while inhibiting any meaningful discussion of where this country’s vital interests really lie, and why. Mr. Bush’s sweeping, undiscriminating claims carry on a long tradition of extravagant American statements that mask underlying disparities between the nation’s aspirations and its power. The most important of those statements, perhaps, was the Truman Doctrine, which fortythree years ago helped provide the rationale for the Cold War. Then, too, America stood on the threshold of a new era, struggling to understand a world order that had been abruptly transformed, while in the distance armed aggression seemed to imperil the hard-won peace. The Soviet Union was tightening its grip on Eastern Europe and putting pressure on Turkey, and a Communist insurgency threatened the government of Greece. American officials felt that the United States had to respond. But how was intervention to be justified to the American people? The Truman Administration devised a policy that obligated the United States to come to the aid of all “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” — a rhetorical inflation that owed more to salesmanship than to statesmanship, and was designed to make the actual interests involved, in the words of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “clearer than truth” to the American people.

In the hands of Acheson’s successor, John Foster Dulles, the Truman Doctrine led to the establishment of a worldwide system of alliances and treaties, and to American commitments wholly out of scale with American interests. The United States had consecrated itself to “a global ideological struggle against revolutionary communism” — in the words of Walter Lippmann, one of the doctrine’s most influential critics-and by doing so had crippled its ability to make clear-eyed judgments: it had obligated itself to defend its own “credibility” whenever and wherever it saw its vow challenged. Lippmann later pointed out that this global commitment was “at the root of our difficulty in appraising coolly the extent and the importance of our engagement in Vietnam,” and he added, “I think there is a stopping point between globalism and isolationism. The test of statesmanship is to find those stopping points and act accordingly.”

Our policy in the Persian Gulf offers little evidence that American officials are making any effort to find such a “stopping point.” Real interests are unquestionably involvedthey have to do with oil and with supporting a number of American clients that supply it-but the talk of “naked aggression” has overshadowed them. Within days of Iraq’s invasion, the President recklessly committed the United States to forcing its full reversal, and he has since insisted that he will never compromise that goal. The invasion of Kuwait “will not stand,” he says again and again: America will not “yield one inch” on its demand that Iraq unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait. Yet it has been clear almost from the outset that these statements, if they are rigidly adhered to, mean either complete surrender on Hussein’s part (an unlikely scenario) or war-and perhaps a ground war of the bloodiest kind.

If the real interests of the country are weighed, Lippmann’s “stopping point” must be found somewhere short of war. No doubt it is in the American interest to defend Saudi Arabia, a source of a large percentage of the world’s oil, but American troops have already succeeded in doing that, and the defense could be maintained with only a fraction of the troops that are now in Saudi Arabia. It is in the American interest to prevent Iraq from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but the way to do that is, just as it was before August 2nd, to keep the necessary components-which are produced and exported almost entirely by our allies-from reaching Iraq. And it is certainly in the interest of all nations, including the United States, to uphold the principle that aggression should not be rewardedthat large nations should not be allowed to swallow smaller ones. But that principle is already being upheldby the United Nations, the proper instrument; and through international sanctions, the appropriate weapon.

Though the sanctions may never force Saddam Hussein to give back every inch of Kuwaiti territory, in time they could well force him to negotiate the withdrawal of Iraqi soldiers from all but the two islands and the bit of border territory which were at the root of the original dispute. No one would claim this to be an ideal solution, but the sad fact is that the only policy capable of insuring a free, territorially whole Kuwait, while keeping American losses to an acceptable level, is a policy that would have prevented the invasion in the first place.

Arguing that America has little choice but to go to war, Henry Kissinger recently remarked, “Once the troops are there, their presence creates its own reality.” It is unfortunate that as the post-Cold War era begins, our policy is being driven by such a “reality.” Lippman wrote, “I admire public men who play it cool and do not bend their judgment to the exhortations of the globalists. I am confident, moreover, that in the issues of war and peace, the safe course is to make a judgment as to where is the balance of our interests and our power, and having made that judgment, to act decisively.” Perhaps President Bush, behind his angry bluster, has already made that judgment, but, if so, he hasn’t disclosed it, and he has certainly not come anywhere near making his case to the country. If the post-Cold War world is to be any different from what preceded it, our “public men” must be unafraid to identify the limits of American power and to tell the people where those limits lie.