Where Are We Going in the Gulf?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – January 29, 1998

The drums are beating for another American war in the Persian Gulf.
Republicans assure Bill Clinton of total backing if he launches air strikes against Iraq. Three U.S. carriers rendezvous in the Gulf in February. Madeleine Albright flies off to tell Europe: America will act alone if necessary. The head of the U.N. weapons inspection team warns that Iraq has acquired sufficient biological weapons to “blow away Tel Aviv.” Message: We must strike now!

Another argument that surely has appeal to Clinton: F-18s, Stealth fighters, smart bombs and cruise missiles can push even Monica Lewinsky off Page One. My guess: Unless Saddam Hussein shows flexibility soon, U.S. air strikes are baked in the cake.

But before the missiles fly, someone should ask some as-yet-unanswered questions. Clinton says the U.N. inspection team has destroyed more Iraqi weapons of mass destruction than Desert Storm. But if six weeks of round-the-clock strikes by 2,000 planes could not destroy those weapons, what can a few days of strikes by the 300 planes now in the Gulf conceivably accomplish?

Clearly, U.S. air strikes are thus meant to punish Saddam, to force him to open up his scores of palaces to U.N. inspection. But if Saddam would not withdraw from Kuwait under some of the most punishing strikes in history, why would he yield after a few days of bombing now?

Suppose Saddam hunkers down, and the world, in revulsion, cries out “Enough!” What do we do then? A few hawks have the answer: We create a new Army of Desert Storm, invade Iraq, depose Saddam and find his weapons ourselves.

The “On-to-Baghdad” boys are back. But there are problems with their war scenario. First, the U.N. Security Council would not authorize it. Russia and China would veto it. Few allies would assist us. U.S. forces would have to invade Iraq almost alone. Nor is there any guarantee that Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would play host to another 500,000-man U.S. army.

Moreover, given the draw-down in U.S. forces in seven years, building that army would mean cannibalizing U.S. forces around the world, calling up the reserves and perhaps reinstituting the draft. We may soon see just how enthusiastic we really are about playing Globocop, if it comes to the serious shedding of American blood.

Consider the potential downside of air strikes. First, limited success or even failure of mission. As Saddam has surely dispersed his weapons, we would not get them all, and destruction of his production facilities would be temporary. If a Japanese cult can produce poison gas in a room the size of the Unabomber’s shack, there is no way, short of occupation, to prevent Saddam from making and storing this stuff.

Another downside will be CNN footage of dead Iraqi children and wailing women that will reverberate across an Islamic world where U.S. unpopularity is a growth stock. Will the Arab streets rise in violent protest? We don’t know. Some assure us that Arab concern for suffering Iraqis is myth, that all the Arabs care about is power, and that once U.S. might is exhibited, the Arabs will go with the winners. Perhaps. But fear of an Arab backlash caused George Bush to halt his legions outside Basra, and while America’s Gulf War was popular, it was also that rare foreign war where the regimes were with us, while the masses seemed sympathetic to the enemy.

If Saddam does not yield and we are forced to halt air strikes, U.S. power will be discredited, and we will have to fall back on an embargo that is increasingly seen as ineffective and immoral.

Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people, George Bush said; it is with Saddam Hussein. Yet, the embargo has not caused Saddam a single lost meal while savagely punishing the Iraqi people for failing to overthrow a tyrant even the army of Desert Storm was unable to oust from power. How do we justify this? Are Iraqi children of less value than other children?

Let us take a best-case scenario. Air strikes “get” Saddam or convince him to open up all secret sites to inspection, and we strip him of his weapons of mass destruction. Victory! What do we do then about the missiles and weapons of mass destruction in Iran? No matter, we must act, we are told, because Iraq’s weapons “threaten the world.” But if that is true, why isn’t the world with us?

One day, America is going to have to adopt the only plausible policy: deterrence. Tell Saddam that if he uses even one of his gas weapons on U.S. troops, we will use our atomic weapons on him. Period. We deterred Stalin and Mao that way. And with U.S. forces contracting, and U.S. relative power declining, this may be the only feasible way to deter the lesser tyrants of the 21st century.