Saddam Hussein, whatever his real intentions, has demonstrated over the past several days that by shifting his elite troops toward the Kuwait border he can force the United States to undertake very costly and disruptive military deployments to the Persian Gulf. That the Iraqi dictator has this capability is going to reopen a question that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious commander of Operation Desert Storm, predicts "the historians are going to second guess forever."
The question is whether President George Bush erred in avoiding the complete destruction of Iraqi forces when they were reeling in defeat on Feb. 28, 1990. General Schwarzkopf, though no historian, jump-started this speculation when he said a few weeks after the end of the war that "my recommendation had been. . .continue the march. We could have completely closed the door and made it, in fact, a battle of annihilation."
Actually, he later conceded, his "recommendation" had not been very forceful. Rather than protesting as a Montgomery or a MacArthur might have done, he saluted his commander in chief. To avoid the dismemberment of Iraq, with all this could mean to the destabilization of Turkey or the predominance of Iran, President Bush let Mr. Hussein stay in power, his army intact enough to cause trouble another day.
This was not entirely a matter of making the tough geo-political decisions. Because the gulf war was the quintessential TV or CNN war, the blasting of Iraqi forces on the "highway of death" was carried live and worldwide. TV pictures proved as anecdotal as they were successful in arousing public compassion. Mr. Bush called off the attack, citing humanitarian concerns. Only later was it learned that the Iraqi losses had been exaggerated.
Yesterday, Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta was asked about a soldier's comment that the U.S. would not be sending forces back to the gulf if it had "finished off Saddam" in the first place. "I can tell you this," Mr. Panetta said. "We're not going to repeat the mistakes of the past."
Does this mean the U.S. will "finish off Saddam" if he again attacks Kuwait. It is difficult to conceive that the American public would tolerate any other solution. But the present crisis could be just a feint on Mr. Hussein's part -- one to beef up his image by bearding Uncle Sam while pressuring the United Nations to lift an economic embargo that has brought Iraq close to collapse.
It is unacceptable that this discredited dictator, who like Hitler is willing to impose terrible hardships on his own people, should retain the initiative to threaten his neighbors and trigger a burdensome U.S. response any time it serves his purposes. President Clinton and the world community should hold firm against him until he falls at last. The resulting shakeup in Iraq and the gulf region could hardly be worse than what is happening now.