President Bush will have himself to blame when the first anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait rolls around Friday with Saddam Hussein still in power. It was the president who decided on Feb. 27 to end the ground war precisely 100 hours after it started and 24 hours before Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Operation Desert Storm, had planned. This fateful decision, permitting 700 top-line tanks and 57,000 Iraqi troops to escape capture, allowed the "brutal bully" of Baghdad to remain a taunting and dangerous presence in the Middle East scene.
For weeks now, Mr. Bush has been warning his badly beaten foe that he might face another series of air strikes if he does not comply with United Nations resolutions that he reveal and destroy his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. But last Thursday, a deadline for compliance came and went as the United States found it increasingly difficult to gather coalition support for the renewed use of force.
The administration has let it be known that it believes it has U.N. authorization to take action unilaterally. But one factor staying its hand is the sudden prospect of an American-Soviet sponsored Middle East peace conference on the Israeli-Arab conflict. A U.S. armed attack on Iraq at such a delicate moment could make it difficult for coalition partners Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union to go along with the new diplomatic game.
No doubt most nations in the region would have shared Mr. Bush's joy had Saddam Hussein's generals deposed him last February after he had brought calamity to his nation. But U.S. policy was thwarted by two countervailing objectives. It wanted Iraq to stay unified and it wanted Saddam Hussein out. As it happened, the U.S. couldn't have both. Mr. Hussein shuffled his command repeatedly to short-circuit coup attempts. And he used the forces permitted to escape General Schwarzkopf's trap to batter the Kurdish rebellion in the north and the Shiite uprising in the south.
So far, the United States has been able to keep economic pressure on Baghdad mainly because Mr. Hussein has been so blatant in trying to hide the extent of his nuclear weapons program. But the sorrows he has caused his own people are now being cynically exploited to punch holes in the nation's isolation. Even Washington may go along with the sale of more than $1 billion in Iraqi oil to pay for humanitarian supplies -- provided they are distributed under international supervision.
Twenty-twenty hindsight suggests that Mr. Bush badly miscalculated last February. The best course now is to eliminate Iraq as a threat to the region without eliminating Iraq itself. In time, Saddam Hussein may be forced out. Until then, Mr. Bush's victory is incomplete.