As war talk by the White House, the British government, the Saudis, and the exiled Kuwaiti regime escalates, the time has come for the American government and people to decide if war in the Gulf is really the road to choose. War is sometimes, regrettably, the lesser of several monstrous evils. Surely this was the case in World War II. Then the Western allies united with a despicable Stalin to root out an even more despicable Nazi regime.
But Vietnam taught America that if its military power is committed in an absence of clearly understood and articulated goals, it is headed for disaster.
Saddam Hussein is not Hitler, White House rhetoric aside. But he is no innocent victim of Western ``aggression,'' either. He has repeatedly violated international law by invading his neighbors.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to ignore Saddam's support among Arab peoples throughout the Middle East. An attack on him by US forces has the potential to set off an anti-Western explosion in the area that could damage US interests, threaten Israel, and reverberate for decades.
What exactly are US goals in the region? Are they merely to reestablish Kuwaiti independence, or to remove Saddam?
If the latter, just how is this to be achieved without killing so many innocent Iraqis, and so leveling Iraq, that the US will live in infamy among Muslims?
And should the US succeed, just what kind of government does it hope to see in Baghdad? Where will the money to rebuild Iraq come from?
If the US goal is merely to reestablish Kuwait's sovereignty, does this mean reinstalling the Kuwaiti regime, the status quo ante, and then packing up and going home? Will there be anything left of Kuwait to govern after a bitter urban war? What defense needs will Kuwait have? Are US troops to be deployed in the Gulf region for decades?
Finally, is the US public prepared to accept the 20,000 to 45,000 US deaths that could result in a very short time?
President Bush is surely right when he deplores the treatment of Western hostages and says Iraq's invasion of Kuwait must not stand. But that does not mean war is inevitable. The president should work against leakage in the embargo, use every diplomatic tool, and continue to work through the United Nations Security Council to expel Saddam.
The presence of troops, gunboats, tanks, and jet fighters may be required to convince the Iraqi leader he cannot prevail. But the US government and people should not rush into war without considering questions like those raised here, and their implications for the future.