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The Gulf Crisis as Teacher

ONCE we get past the Gulf crisis, it might be a good idea to look at the ability of American policymakers to understand basic historical forces as well as the connection between causes and effects. Begin with Iraq.

Iraq today possesses a wide array of modern weapons - planes, tanks, missiles. The notion prevails that all these weapons come from the Soviet Union. A great many of the weapons were attained from the United States in the administration of Jimmy Carter. The US had badly underestimated the depth of popular opposition to the Shah of Iran after long years of despotism. When the Ayatollah Khomeini swept into power, anti-Shah feeling in Iran carried over to the US because of its identification with the old regime. US policy architects at the time regarded Iraq as a useful counter-power to Iran. The role of the US in accelerating a war momentum in Iraq against Iran is not a pretty one. Yes, the Soviet Union became a heavy arms supplier, but we got there first.

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Our grotesque miscalculation on Iraq was not the first of its kind. We got into Vietnam because we conceived of communism as a unified world force. The fear was that if we didn't stop communism in Vietnam it would spill over into all Indochina and from there into Singapore, Indonesia, and the Indian subcontinent. We failed in Vietnam, but we were to discover that nationalism was a far greater force than ideology.

In the aftermath of that war, Communist forces in Vietnam fell to fighting with Communist forces in Cambodia. Old nationalist tensions between China and Vietnam broke out. Meanwhile, territorial quarrels between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China grew hostile. The story of our miscalculation is writ large in the thousands of names of American soldiers engraved on the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington.

US policy toward the United Nations is reflected in its opposition to efforts to strengthen the UN and give it the means to deal with basic causes of war. We not only vetoed initiatives to give the UN the capability to maintain the peace but we cut back on our financial support of the world organization. The most important building block in the peaceful resolution of conflicts is the World Court. Yet, when the actions of the US in Nicaragua were brought before the World Court, the US refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court. As a result, the US today cannot propose to bring the Gulf crisis before the court as a way of resolving a conflict that could set fire not just to the Middle East but to the world.

If we can squeeze by the present crisis, we could make no greater contribution to world peace than to support a call under Article 109 of the UN Charter for a conference to consider ways of strengthening the UN, so that it will not have to improvise in order to contain a serious crisis.

The big lesson to be learned from the Gulf crisis is that effective world organization is the only way of averting a nuclear holocaust. This calls for mechanisms that transcend the power and policies of individual nations. The only reason the Security Council was able to act against Iraqi aggression was that the US and the Soviet Union were in accord. It is absurd and irresponsible, however, to assume that all future major crises will find the US and USSR on the same side. It becomes mandatory, therefore, for the UN to act effectively even when the two superpowers are not in agreement - or, even more significantly - when tensions between these two governments threaten to become combustible.

Building a fully functional world organization capable of creating and interpreting world law will not be easy. But it is folly to think we can have enduring peace without it. At one of their future summit meetings, therefore, it might be useful for President Bush and President Gorbachev to go beyond Middle East issues and to consider ways of developing the UN into a genuine peacemaking institution. The superpowers will have to cross the Rubicon from their present notions of absolute national sovereignty to an acceptance of the world as a single geographic unit that needs the responsible powers of governance.

The meaning of the Gulf crisis is that the world is too small for anarchy - whether reflected in aggression by one nation against another or by the delusion of nations, especially the superpowers, that they can go it alone in the world.

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