Washington.--Again, the time for diplomacy passed.
The high-speed diplomatic exchanges failed and were swallowed up by the roar of battle. Soon after the noon deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait passed with an angry rejection from Baghdad, allied ground troops undertook a massive encirclement of the half-million Iraqi force.
Again, the baton was passed from the diplomats to the warriors.
As the talking stopped and the shooting started, there were in these events the seeds of misjudgment and the strong sense of opportunity lost. But where did the opportunity lie -- in diplomacy or in war? And which side was losing it?
Even if the ultimate result was to be a final, unambiguous, humiliating and disastrous defeat for Saddam Hussein, is that necessarily victory for the United States and its allies? The answer depends not only on the objectives but on public perceptions of them. Winning in the United States may not be winning in Israel or in Iraq and other Arab countries. And winning today may be losing a year from now.
"There's no clear winner whatever happens in this confrontation," says Hisham Sharabi, a Palestine-born professor of history at Georgetown University. "From the U.S. point of view a military victory need not necessarily entail a political victory."
If a negotiated withdrawal were to succeed, he said, "In the [gulf] area, the U.S. would have succeeded in avoiding a great deal of political damage. The political outcome . . . without a land war would be much less harmful than with a land war."
American objectives were clearly set out by President Bush before and after the war began: the total withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait; restoration of its legitimate government, and post-war arrangements to assure regional stability.
As the war proceeded, however, the vagueness of the objective on post-war stability seemed to harden into not only the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but possibly his death. It included destruction of a large -- but undefined -- part of his military force, reparations to Kuwait and possibly an international legal proceeding for war crimes.
President Bush also made clear the principle on which his policy was based: There can be no reward for aggression. But not rewarding aggression was not enough; it must be actively punished.
A source close to the White House said that a private objective of the administration from the beginning was to demonstrate that "you suffer for aggressive acts. They wanted to give Saddam a bloody nose, to humiliate him in the Arab world. . . . You can't let him have a fig leaf."
If Mr. Hussein were to agree to withdraw on the basis of Soviet assurances unacceptable to the United States, the source said, then the U.S. must dictate the terms of withdrawal.
While Mr. Hussein's death or removal from power would be preferable -- they could not be policy goals -- humiliation could substitute. That could be achieved by the spectacle of Iraqi troops leaving heavy weapons in the desert and walking or riding in trucks or buses back to Iraq, the vaunted Republican Guards first, taking up positions far from the Kuwaiti border as dictated by the the allies.
With sufficient humiliation, it was argued, Mr. Hussein could be presented to his people as a loser, having squandered the nation's wealth and youth in two successive wars for no visible return, having conspicuously failed to achieve his goals or carry out his threats -- to solve the whole range of Middle East problems, to acquire for Iraq the oil wealth and Persian Gulf access through Kuwait, to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons, to see his adversaries' soldiers swimming in their own blood.
"Then," says Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "he is accountable to the Iraqi people. His legitimacy will have been undermined, and they'll take care of it."
The maximalist view of allied victory is found in its purest form in Israel, where the nightmare scenario occurs if Iraqis, paralyzed by the terror of Saddam's dictatorship, fail to remove him from power. To Israel, victory may only be defined by the destruction of the Iraqi military force and removal of Saddam Hussein.
Israel has good cause for concern. There are many examples in the Arab world of military defeats turned into political victories -- the most famous being Gamal Abdel Nasser's defeat at Suez in 1956 -- and Israel has been on the wrong side of several of them.
A lesser-known but equally painful one occurred March 21, 1968, when, fed up with deadly terrorist raids of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, Israel trapped him and about 300 fedayeen in the Jordanian village of Karameh, which means "dignity" in Arabic.
The fedayeen were young, lightly armed and vastly outnumbered despite Jordanian help. But Mr. Arafat, resisting Jordanian advice to withdraw to the hills, elected to stay and fight "to prove there are people in our Arab nation who are ready to fight and die."
Israeli tanks attacked across a front of nearly 50 miles, paratroops landed in the rear and the air force eventually intervened. When it was over, Karameh was razed, the fedayeen were decimated, but Mr. Arafat survived.
According to British Maj. Gen. James D. Lunt, the fedayeen became "the heroes of the hour, and Arafat was the hero of heroes." There resulted such an upsurge in Palestinian morale, General Lunt wrote, that "volunteers from all over the Arab world flocked to join the fedayeen."
Israeli fears that a vastly weakened Saddam Hussein might rise like a phoenix and threaten his neighbors again, while real, also suggest another kind of defeat. The peace of Versailles in 1919, when allies dictated humiliating conditions of German surrender, led to greater instability, the rise of Nazism and another war.
The bitterness and outrage in much of the Arab world toward the West derives from the same period -- when Britain and France divided up the Middle East with the creation of boundaries that represented little but their own interests, leading to a deep sense of helplessness among Arabs in controlling their own lives.
That is why winning for Mr. Hussein does not need to be achieving his original goals: the acquisition of Kuwait and its wealth or cancellation of his debt to Kuwait. Winning for him could as well be defined, according to Mr. Indyk, as having stood up to a superior Western force, inflicting heavy casualties and securing commitment to his program of solving the Arab-Israeli issue, getting Syria out of South Lebanon and rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure.
Indeed one Palestinian journalist in Jordan suggested that Mr. Hussein had already won, because he succeeded in putting on the table the key issues of Arabic control over Arab affairs, of redistribution of wealth among Arab countries, of Arab dignity and foreign intervention.
Now, Middle East scholars argue, regardless of Mr. Hussein's needs, a failure to take account of the deeply-held Arab sensitivities will turn a short-term victory into a long-term defeat.
"Making Saddam Hussein the criterion of victory," said Ashraf Ghani, an Afghan-born anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University, "is a mistaken view because in the medium to long-term interest the liberation of Kuwait is a victory" compared with the 10 years, 1.5 million dead and 5 million refugees it took to achieve a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Moreover, Mr. Ghani says, the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf will be entering an alliance with the United States. "That is a sea change," he says, compared with their role in the oil crisis of 1973.
A long-term victory for the United States, says Mr. Ghani, would mean addressing voluntarily -- not because Saddam Hussein insisted on it -- the issues he adopted and then dropped as his causus belli: a general settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a redistribution of wealth among the rich and poor Arab states. Mr. Ghani adds to that list an initiative to establish democratic institutions in the region.
While conceding that such a policy may be politically unlikely in the United States, it would have the additional benefit of avoiding discredit to America's Arab allies, Mr. Ghani says.
A more common American definition of winning is Mr. Indyk's: "establishing a stable balance of power and promoting our interests, [which are] stability, a free flow of oil, the security of Israel and the Arab states friendly to us."
"We should not assume," Mr. Indyk says, "that we have responsibility to solve the region's ills. They are endemic problems. We can help, but we can't solve them. In the end, it's up to them."
Frank Starr is chief of The Sun's Washington bureau.