The aggression was undisguised, the greed was naked, the operation was swift, vengeful and effective. In just a few hours, Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein wolfed down all of Kuwait and sat back to gloat.
At a minimal material cost, Hussein has extended Iraq's hegemony over a neighboring land to which it has long laid spurious claim. He has gained effective control over Kuwait's oil. He has acquired a Persian Gulf port for his exports that is largely secure from Iranian attack. And he has won a windfall boost in oil prices, thanks to the near-panic in international markets that his invasion set off.
Sometimes in real life the bad guys win, if only temporarily. Saddam Hussein's takeover of Kuwait is a fait accompli that is hardly likely to be reversed by U.N. Security Council condemnation or NATO protests or even joint U.S.-Soviet denunciation. Even if his diplomats are setting a precedent by telling the truth when they promise an Iraqi withdrawal within a matter of weeks, he will probably be able to go on enjoying the fruits of his conquest for a long time to come, thanks to the Kuwaiti puppet government he will leave behind.
WHAT TO DO: The urgent challenge now facing a world that was just beginning to hope that cross-border aggression was becoming a thing of the past is to make the costs of Iraq's conquest as onerous as possible--and to unite to make it unmistakably clear that any further Iraqi aggression will invite a prompt and punishing military response.
In less than 24 hours the United States made a good start on that first need. President Bush has ordered all Iraqi and Kuwaiti assets in the United States frozen, effectively denying the aggressor access to billions in cash deposits, securities and real property. He has banned nearly all U.S. exports to Iraq. And he has announced an embargo on all Iraqi imports, most notably oil.
In April, the most recent month for which figures are available, an average 588,000 barrels of Iraqi oil entered the United States daily, accounting for 7.6% of total imports. That is no small amount; add to it oil purchases from Kuwait and the total approaches 10% of U.S. imports. Presumably Washington had assurances that this loss would be promptly replaced by stepped-up (though not necessarily announced) output from other major oil suppliers. Saudi Arabia alone is immediately capable of boosting its output by millions of barrels.
But actions taken by a single country to punish an aggressor are seldom effective. Many nations are engaged in commerce with Iraq. Some, Britain and France among them, have taken the first steps toward economic sanctions. That's not enough: A worldwide ban on sales of all weapons and high-tech equipment to Iraq must be implemented. The Soviet Union, in the past a key supplier of planes, tanks and other weapons to Baghdad, has already announced that it will suspend arms shipments. Other suppliers can do no less--and that includes France.
THREAT TO THE REGION: Yet more must be done, not only in retribution for Saddam Hussein's criminal contempt for the norms of international behavior but, equally, in prudent anticipation of what he could be contemplating next.
The lesson of history is stark and unmistakable: The appetites of despots grow with each success. Iraq's sand-dune Caesar will probably take a while to digest his cheap and easy triumph in Kuwait, a feat of arms approximately equivalent to gang-mugging an old lady. Soon enough-- given his ambitions, his ego, his craving for ever-greater power--he can be expected to cast his covetous eye elsewhere.
Surely this point is not lost on Iraq's neighbors. On Thursday, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo agreed to hold an emergency summit to deal with Iraq's invasion. Ordinarily this is no big deal--such emergency meetings are routine in the Middle East. But the Arab League must understand that a dagger through Kuwait is a threat to all others in the region. And Israel needs to be on the alert as well: Hussein could well step up his threats against Israel in an effort to re-endear himself to an Arab world made newly nervous by his aggression.
That could prove to be a dangerous game indeed, for a threatened Israel can quickly become a reactive Israel, and Israel has shown more than once that when it chooses a policy of military response, it can be unsparing in its devastation. Or Saddam Hussein could look south, at Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms and their great oil wealth, and contemplate using his military power and deserved reputation for ruthlessness to try to bend these producers to his will.
DRAWING THE LINE: A second compelling lesson of history: The line against aggression must be drawn and defended. That requires, first of all, making it crystal clear to Iraq that such a line now exists, that the limit of tolerance for his belligerence has been reached, and that the United States would draw that line, literally, somewhere well north of Riyadh.
That means that the second great need is to offer extended military cooperation to the Saudis and other potentially threatened Gulf states in an effort to bolster their morale, their political will, their readiness to resist further Iraqi threats and intimidation. There is no assurance that this offer would be accepted; in the face of Iraq's overwhelming regional military superiority, timidity throughout the Gulf could well prevail. But the offer should be made.
Should the United States ponder going it alone militarily to punish Iraq, even if it can't overturn Iraq's conquest? For many, it is a very tempting idea indeed. But any assessment of the limits of conventional U.S. military power in the Persian Gulf area swiftly reduces that temptation. No American general would give good odds on land operations in a hostile environment against Iraq's well-armed, million-man army. Naval forces operating in or near the Persian Gulf could undoubtedly inflict some economic pain on Iraq with an embargo. But their effectiveness would be circumscribed and could risk Iraqi counterstrikes that would threaten to do unacceptable damage to U.S. ships. If there is to be any credible military response against Iraq, a primary requirement is for secure and adequate bases on or close to the Arabian peninsula. The United States has no such bases, nor at this point is it likely to be offered them. The military balance might tip the West's way if someone asked us to come in. Only then. And maybe not even then.
THE OIL IMPACT: The implicit threat to oil supplies at least comes at a favorable time for major consumers. The big industrial countries have stockpiled more than a three-months' supply, a firm cushion against a loss of some Persian Gulf output and even--if they act calmly--against inflation-producing, recession-provoking price run-ups. Moreover, Iraq will want to keep the oil flow intact because it is wholly dependent on oil revenue to survive.
But the shock of the invasion serves to remind all Americans anew of our dangerous dependence on foreign energy sources, and of the need for a broader-based energy program. The truth is that oil comes at a very dear geopolitical price indeed. American consumers pay not only in hard cash but in other ways as well.
THE GLOBAL DIMENSION: Despite the end of the Cold War and the movement toward conciliation in other conflicts, Iraq's invasion illustrates how little things have changed in the Middle East. The endless tensions and fearsome unpredictability are part and parcel of daily life in the Middle East, as, of course, our friends the Israelis know only too well.
Hussein's success also illustrates the limits of superpowerdom. Even when Moscow and Washington agree--Secretary of State James A. Baker III is scheduled to be in Moscow today to issue a joint statement with the Soviet government about Iraq's aggression--much of the world continues to go its own hostile way.
This is still, then, a very dangerous time in world affairs, and that danger lends credence to those who argue for a measured and careful build-down of military forces despite the Cold War's end.
For so long as a dictator like Saddam Hussein can strut and posture and bully and brutalize his neighbors, it will remain an unpredictable and troubling age.
WHERE THE U.S. GETS ITS OIL
U.S. Imports Percent of Percent of In Thousands of Total U.S. Domestic oil Barrels Per Day Imports Products Supplied 1. Saudi Arabia 1,149 14.8 6.9 2. Venezuela 1.005 13.0 6.0 3. Nigeria 969 12.5 5.8 4. Canada 908 11.7 5.4 5. Iraq 588 7.6 3.5 6. Mexico 466 5.9 2.8 7. Virgin Islands*283 3.6 1.7 8. United Kingdom 3.5 1.6 9. Angola 248 3.2 1.5 10.Algeria 243 3.0 1.4 Opec Countries 4,196 54.1 25.2 Persian Gulf Countries 1,917 24.7 11.5
* Supplier of products made from crude oil
Source: U.S. Department of Energy