Is the U.S. just a 'pitiful, helpless giant' in the gulf?


CRACKS HAVE begun to appear in the consensus regarding America's next move in the Persian Gulf. Over the next few weeks those cracks could grow much wider.

President Bush's decision to deploy U.S. forces to the region and assemble a multinational coalition to oppose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein won widespread public support in the first weeks following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The size and speed of the U.S. buildup in Saudi Arabia both surprised and reassured a country still recovering from the national paralysis of will known as the "Vietnam Syndrome." But as the costs and risks of military action in the gulf become clearer, Bush will find it much harder to retain the support he enjoyed initially.

Let there be no mistake. War with Iraq would be a difficult, dangerous affair. The Iraqi army, while not invincible, is a skillfully led, powerful military force equipped with modern weapons capable of visiting terrible, bloody carnage on its enemies.

Saddam Hussein has already demonstrated his willingness to employ weapons of mass destruction as well. Iraq has both chemical weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, both of which were employed during its eight-year war with Iran. Recently, intelligence reports have suggested that Iraq may possess a capacity to wage biological warfare as well -- a threat the U.S. and its allies are much less well prepared to defend against.

The U.S. also must be wary of the political consequences of any full-scale war in the region, even if Iraq were defeated militarily. A conflict that drew Israel in on the side of the multinational force could splinter the fragile Arab alliance against Saddam. A war that resulted in tens of thousands of American casualties could produce a de facto U.S. withdrawal from the gulf when it was over, leaving the region more unstable than before.

It is difficult to imagine how Saddam's troops can be dislodged from Kuwait by military action that did not risk the physical destruction of that country and its oil fields. But in the absence of outside intervention, Saddam's troops will dismantle Kuwait piece by piece anyway. If "saving" Kuwait is to be the aim of U.S. policy in the gulf, it may simply be unachievable by either war or diplomacy.

War also carries the additional risk of severe damage or destruction to Saudi Arabia's oil fields. Though the multinational force in Saudi Arabia now probably has the capacity to defend the kingdom's territory, Iraq could still inflict severe damage on its oil-producing facilities, especially if Saddam chose to employ chemical or biological weapons.

It was Richard M. Nixon who called America a "pitiful, helpless giant" for its inability to use its enormous economic and military strength to achieve its political goals in Third World conflicts. Nixon, of course, was speaking in the context of America's frustrating experience in Vietnam, and that asymmetry between means and goals became known as the "Vietnam Syndrome."

The gulf crisis is fundamentally different from Vietnam because it is occurring outside the context of the Cold War that limited previous American uses of force. But the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East's volatile history of religious and nationalistic strife impose limits on America's options that are hardly less constraining than those enforced by the East-West conflict.

If the U.S. goes to war and does not win a quick, cheap victory it risks the unraveling of its multinational coalition and loss of domestic public support of its Middle East policy. The same dangers attend any protracted stalemate in the desert. Having set in motion the largest U.S. foreign military intervention up in a generation, President Bush could find himself with no good options for resolving the crisis on terms favorable to the U.S.

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