From one year out, the American triumph in the Persian Gulf appears more and more as one last fling. With the Pentagon budget plunging at an ever-accelerating rate, the United States probably will be unable by mid-decade to put together an expeditionary force half a million strong to deal with a regional conflict on the other side of the globe. More than that, you have to wonder whether American clout will be such that our Cold War allies, now changed into fierce trade competitors, will again be willing to pick up most of the tab.
If these uncertainties materialize, the U.S.-led coalition put together to defeat Saddam Hussein's Iraq may not be a prototype for the future but a nostalgic evocation of military might. If the United States is to play a credible role as Superpower No. 1, it will have to rely on a new sense of shared responsibility at the United Nations.
Indeed, of all the results of the gulf war, which started at 6.30 p.m. one year ago this evening, the emergence of the U.N. as a more effective institution is the most encouraging. This was partly due to President Bush's bold leadership in insisting that Iraq's seizure of Kuwait "will not stand." But would he have succeeded without a surprising partner -- the former Soviet Union?
Suddenly, the Baghdad regime found it could not rely on superpower rivalry to stay the American hand in the Persian Gulf. Suddenly, it found even China unwilling to block the kind of concerted international action only agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council can muster. This entirely new situation projected the post-Cold War situation into a region intellectually unprepared for it.
In pursuit of economic survival, Boris Yeltsin's Russia might well be willing to follow the U.S. lead if another regional conflict should erupt. But unless oil supplies are at stake, German and Japanese financing cannot be taken for granted by Washington. And America's own domestic problems, as witness the pressure to crunch the Pentagon budget, make it doubtful the U.S. can muster another huge overseas operation on short notice.
President Bush himself has fallen from the lofty heights of triumphant commander-in-chief to a recession-plagued incumbent in danger of defeat. What his compatriots have to wonder -- and worry -- about is whether his personal plummet is not a metaphor for an American decline that can be reversed not by military prowess but only by rehabilitating the U.S. social structure.