Even before the jubilation in Kuwait City died down -- indeed, even before the Gulf War ended in a decisive allied victory -- many who warned that the war would go badly were warning that the war's aftermath would go badly. That is a safe prediction. No one has ever won a nickel betting on peace and harmony in the Middle East or gained a reputation for political clairvoyance by predicting that a war in the region would end its ancient conflicts.
But for all the postwar uncertainties, there ought to be no remaining doubt that the Gulf War was worth fighting and winning. In liberating Kuwait, we blocked the attempted murder of a country. In defeating Iraq, we averted the danger that an aggressive, militarist regime, hostile to liberty, might have continued to accumulate oil wealth, transform it into yet greater military force, intimidate and take over other nations in the region, and then -- as it acquired nuclear weapons -- reach a threshold of virtually impregnable power.
Preventing that concentration of self-reinforcing financial and military power in the hands of Saddam Hussein was the central, legitimate, national interest not just of the United States, but of the many other countries who joined us in the coalition. On that basis alone, the war was justified, and our victory in it genuinely a victory for international security.
Yet the indirect effects of the war are also likely -- with some notable exceptions -- to be largely positive. The magnitude of Iraq's defeat may well cause another regional power to hesitate before undertaking aggression against a neighbor. I am not suggesting that the war will fulfill the Wilsonian hopes that President Bush has evoked in his talk of a "new world order." The Gulf War is no deterrent to aggression by one of the major powers, and it may lead another Iraq one day to believe it can avoid the fate of Saddam in Kuwait if only it has a better air force and nuclear weapons. Obscure conflicts in areas remote from the Middle East oilfields or other vital international interests are unlikely to mobilize world attention, much less an effective military response.
All the same, the war serves as a reaffirmation of the sovereignty of small nations and the elementary principles of international law for which Saddam showed contempt. Strict enforcement of those principles is unlikely. But the better they are observed, the safer are people everywhere. And the more strongly we affirm such principles, the more we create moral expectations that we will abide by them ourselves.
Some who opposed the war, or at least the ground campaign, warned that our casualties would be so high that, instead of deterring aggression, the war would deter future countermeasures against aggression. This fear proved to be baseless. Had we gotten bogged down in a long and inconclusive stalemate, there would have been little deterrent value to our deployment of troops to the Gulf. But because we emerged victorious and with minimal losses, the effort appears reproducible and, therefore, less likely in need of being reproduced.
Throughout the war, critics raised the specter of repercussions in the Arab street. This was, of course, one of the fears on which Saddam was counting; the excitement of Arab passions was partly his motivation for hurling Scuds into Israel and trying to cast the war in religious and ethnic terms. The effort did not succeed. Yet many of the war's critics in America were only too ready to accept Saddam's definition of the conflict as Arabs versus the West, even with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria as partners in the coalition.
The scenes of euphoria from the streets of Kuwait City after the liberation were perhaps the best answer to those concerned about the emotions that a war might release. And the mounting evidence of Iraqi atrocities against Kuwaitis -- entirely in line with Saddam's record as a serial killer of his own citizens -- are the best answer to the Baathist regime's claims to represent the forces of Arab brotherhood. The unequivocal defeat of Iraq and the discrediting of its moral claims provide a healthy antidote to whatever illusions some in the Arab world may have harbored, not just about Saddam, but about other "strong" leaders raised on revolutionary violence and bent on war.
So it is by no means clear whether America's role in defeating Iraq will stir stronger passions against us, strengthen radical pan-Arabism, and undermine moderate governments. Defeat has its disenchantments; none of the bluster from Baghdad in the days after the collapse of its armies could hide the disaster that Saddam brought upon his nation. The defeat diminishes Iraq both as an ideological symbol and as a direct, political sponsor of violence. Along with diminished Soviet influence in the region, the war creates a new structure of power likely to have a positive impact in promoting moderate forces in Arab states.
Some may nonetheless still think that the war was unjustified because sanctions would have succeeded. In the congressional debate in January on the war resolution, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell asked pointedly how, if we went to war, we would ever know whether the sanctions would have worked. But, in fact, from Saddam's refusal to give in after a month of devastating attacks from the air, we have a pretty good idea that he would not have yielded to a protracted economic embargo. The sanctions did not have the slightest promise, moreover, of reducing the scale of the Iraqi military. More than likely, had we continued with sanctions, American forces would have been sitting in the Gulf for a year and longer with no end in sight, suffering greater casualties from training accidents than they suffered in forty days of air strikes and one hundred hours of ground combat.
The Democrats who opposed the war in January on the basis of fears that it was too risky raised objections that were entirely reasonable at the time. It just happened to turn out they were wrong. Some questioned whether air power could be very effective; the whole history of air power, we were told, showed the contrary. After the air strikes proved to be effective came warnings that a ground campaign would be too costly; we should do everything possible to avoid it. When the Soviet-Iraqi peace plan was initially announced, prominent Democrats were ready to enter into negotiations and all but ruled out a ground war.
There is no shame in being reasonable but wrong. The experience, however, is not encouraging. Political leaders are judged not only on the reasonableness of their qualms, but on the sureness of their instincts. On this score, the Democrats have suffered a major embarrassment. For some time, the public has rated the Democrats as the less credible party on national defense; the Gulf War has now exacerbated all the worries that cause so many in their own natural constituencies to vote Republican in presidential elections.
Yet the real problem is not that the Democrats will continue to be "weak" on defense. On the contrary, the danger is overcompensation. Many Democrats who voted against the war resolution are now going to find it hard to oppose a future military intervention abroad, even if the circumstances are different and the case is much less sound. On defense appropriations, they will now feel a need to redeem themselves by proving their devotion to new generations of sophisticated weaponry. In short, the most likely reactions in the Democratic Party to its embarrassment on Iraq is to still or at least mute the voices of restraint in foreign policy and defense.
For a generation, Vietnam has been emblematic of the dangers of military intervention; many who opposed the war in the Gulf thought they were applying the lesson of Vietnam. But in failing to recognize the crucial differences between the Vietnam and Gulf wars -- the shared international interest in blocking Iraqi expansion; the clear moral foundations for the liberation of Kuwait; the weak hold of the Iraqi police state on the loyalty of its soldiers; and the practical advantages of fighting in a desert -- the opponents of the Gulf War inadvertently ended up discrediting the lessons of Vietnam. If the next prospective intervention is more like Vietnam than Iraq, many Americans will simply not believe it. Or, if they do see a lesson, it may be the one conservatives draw -- that we lost the Vietnam War because we reined in the military.
That was not, in fact, the cause for our defeat. We lost in Vietnam for one reason above all: we were fighting an indigenous movement that had its origins in anti-colonialism and was able to mobilize nationalist passions against the United States. But during the Gulf War, some left-wing Democrats and many in the antiwar movement performed the parts conservatives might have assigned to them. By calling for premature cease-fires and limits on air and ground operations, they confirmed fears that if in power some day, they would so limit military operations as to prolong a war and increase our casualties.
It is one thing to oppose entry into a war on moral grounds; that is an honorable view. But, once in a war, to oppose the military operations that will end it most quickly does not have the same moral or political weight. America does need a strong opposition to put every thought of foreign intervention to a hard test. Liberals will have the honor of remaining that opposition if in time of war we give the impression that our judgment is too colored by pacifist sentiment, too reflexively averse to the military, to be entrusted with ultimate responsibility for war and peace.
If there is one positive domestic effect of the war, it is to restore some semblance of respect for the armed forces and, perhaps more generally, the capacities of government. Vietnam left behind an unhealthy distrust and disrespect for the soldiers and symbols of the United States. That distrust has been a deep infection in our public life. America's success in the Gulf War may encourage a dangerous overconfidence and overcompensation; it will probably undermine the effort to redefine national security in economic rather than military terms. But if in the aftermath of the war, we are more at peace with ourselves and have a renewed confidence in our capacities as a nation, we may be able to move on to put some fight into all those metaphorical wars -- against drugs, against poverty, against economic decline -- that we keep promising to win at home. (March 2)
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