Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment: In November, a year after the Berlin Wall was breached, American troops and airmen by the thousand…

In November, a year after the Berlin Wall was breached, American troops and airmen by the thousand began leaving the German bases they had occupied for four decades and heading for the Persian Gulf.

In November, a year after the Berlin Wall was breached, American troops and airmen by the thousand began leaving the German bases they had occupied for four decades and heading for the Persian Gulf. The movement of these troops gave the American people their first glimpses of the “post-Cold War world.” For a moment, that term had seemed to evoke, however vaguely, a vision of peace and new possibilities: of American forces finally returning home; of an enlarged role for the United Nations; and of a reliance on sanctions and collective action, rather than unilateral use of force by one or another of the Great Powers, to uphold world security. But on November 8th, two days after the American elections, and without consulting Congress or the American people, President Bush announced that he was nearly doubling the American force in the Gulf and would, in effect, rely on the threat of military attack, rather than on sanctions, to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Mr. Bush by taking this step made it clear that the post-Cold War world would be a familiar place. By acting precipitately and making use of the United Nations and its own allies largely as political cover, the Bush Administration elevated a serious but local conflict in the Persian Gulf into a supreme challenge to its own credibility, and pushed the country, despite the evident uncertainty and hesitancy of its own citizens, to the brink of war — a war that could leave thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians dead, leave the Gulf region in political turmoil, and leave the United States bearing the blame and obliged to pick up the pieces.


“If we don’t check this aggression President Bush explained last month, “a chance for lasting peace and for stability and security in the Gulf and a new world order will have been … forgone. It’s that big. It’s that important. Nothing like this since World War II. Nothing of this moral importance since World War II.” The President has provided few details of what his “new world order” might look like, however, or how it might work. What he has said suggests an order little different from that of the immediate past. “I would not call [the United States] the world’s policeman, because there are certain areas where we wouldn’t be in a position to act or want to act,” the President told Time. “But we have a disproportionate responsibility for the freedom and the security of various countries.”

The United States began to assume disproportionate responsibility for the Persian Gulf during the nineteen–thirties, when American oil companies brought in thousands of American technicians to build and manage the Saudi wells. President Roosevelt formalized that relationship during the Second World War, when he announced that the defense of Saudi Arabia was of vital interest to the United States. It was not until the early seventies, however, after British forces had left the region, that the United States took on the whole burden of insuring a ((secure and stable Gulf.” The result was a string of disastrous policies, beginning with the Nixon Doctrine, under which President Nixon anointed the Shah of Iran America’s “policeman of the Gulf.” In 1979, the Shah was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Iran then became the major threat to American interests in the region. After Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, President Carter felt compelled to replace the Nixon Doctrine with a doctrine of his own, declaring that any outside challenge to America’s interests in the Gulf would be “repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” But that threat was not fully convincing; because the sensitivities of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states prevented the stationing of American troops there, America’s only recourse appeared to be the use of nuclear weapons. During the nineteen-eighties, while Iran and Iraq were at war, the United States “tilted” increasingly toward Iraq, and by the end of the decade American policy makers believed they had found still another solution to the perennial problem of insuring the “stability and security” of the Gulf: they had a new policeman Saddam Hussein.

Our government’s stubborn faith in Saddam Hussein, and its willingness to countenance his intimidating tactics against Kuwait, helped pave the road for his August 2nd invasion. And that mistaken faith does much to explain the Administration’s reaction, which had in it all the fury of a lover betrayed. Inthe words of former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, “we overreacted militarily . . . after we underreacted diplomatically for a number of years.” American forces poured into Saudi Arabia with great speed and efficiency; after two decades of failure by proxy, and of humiliation in Teheran and Beirut and Baghdad, America was at last putting its vital interests firmly in American hands.

There is little in this story to suggest Mr. Bush’s “new world order,” although vague elements of such a thing were discernible in his original policy, adopted in August. Saudi Arabia could have been protected by a relatively small number of troops — a mixed force, in which Americans would have been one participant among many, and which might eventually have been shifted to service under the United Nations flag. The worldwide sanctions imposed could have been maintained and tightened over a period of months, or even years, effectively punishing Iraq for its invasion by depriving it of oil revenues, military parts, and other imports. Using a patient strategy that might well have become a model for maintaining discipline in a “new world order”– a model for combatting aggression everywhere, and not just in those places where the United States felt it had “disproportionate responsibility” –the nations of the world could have acted together to punish one of their number for its flagrant lawbreaking. Eventually, Iraq would have had to leave Kuwait.

But in November President Bush abandoned the chance to carry out such a policy; according to his officials, he was worried about time-about how long the coalition would “hold together.” Having elevated the Iraqi invasion into a threat to America’s “way of life,” the President-no doubt aware of the 1992 elections, and of the political damage Carter had suffered in 1980 from the endless hostage crisis — decided that time was one thing he didn’t have. America’s credibility, after all, was at stake. He determined to force the issue.

To a reluctant, uncertain American people the President has made a soothing promise. “This will not be another Vietnam,” he said at the end of November. “We will not permit our troops to have their hands tied behind their backs.” But in the very act of making his promise the President was

ignoring two larger lessons of Vietnam: that the nation should enter upon a war not as a matter of expediency or of Great Power prestige (however much the cause might be cloaked in vaguely stated principles, such as “Aggression should not be rewarded”) but only as a last resort, to defend an interest that is truly honorable and truly vital to the nation; and that the nation should not enter upon a war before the people have a clear understanding of what sort of sacrifices will be needed in order to win it, and have made a commitment to undertake those sacrifices. President Bush must know that support for a war in the Gulf now is very shallow. (According to a January 6th Washington Post-ABC News Poll, although sixty-three per cent of Americans said they would support the use of military force against Iraq after January 15th, only forty-three per cent said they would support a war in which a thousand Americans died, and only thirty-five per cent would support a war in which ten thousand died.) But instead of speaking frankly to the people, or trying to prepare them, the President simply implies that it will all be over soon.

Saddarn Hussein clearly hopes that American support for war will prove to be weak; even before he invaded Kuwait, he told the American Ambassador that America is “a society that cannot accept ten thousand dead in one battle.” But in any case he will be fighting for his survival, and may well feel that simply not losing will be enough to insure political victory. Despite Mr. Bush’s promise, no one can predict what will happen in any war; history is full of planned short wars that turned into long ones. And a conflict in which a democratic leader who is under pressure to triumph quickly is pitted against an all-powerful dictator who-has a large army and is determined not to lose could be bloody indeed. Already, the crisis has proved enormously costly-not only in the tens of billions of dollars spent by the military but in higher oil prices, destabilized financial markets, the continuing neglect of our domestic problems, and in the increasingly bitter divisions within our nation. If war comes, the future costs will be incalculable, and there is no way to tell how war will eventually affect domestic politics in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and our other allies in the region; the prospects for a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; and, for that matter, Mr. Bush’s dream of a stable and secure Gulf — a mirage that since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a succession of Great Powers have pursued and then been forced to abandon, and one that, whether or not war comes to the Gulf, will almost surely lead to the long-term presence of American forces there.

In 1914, at the outset of what was to be another “splendid little war,” a bitter Henry James wrote to a friend, “The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness … is a thing that so gives away the whole long age in which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.” Not only young men and women will die in a war in the Gulf; so will the hope, held out so briefly, of a different and better post-Cold War world.