PERSPECTIVE ON THE IRAQI INVASION : Stiffen World Backbones : Short-term oil worries will lead Western Europe and Japan to do little more than bemoan Iraq's trespass.

Robert E. Hunter is vice president for regional programs and director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

This week, the United States woke up from its reverie over winning the Cold War and discovered that it is less powerful than it thinks. Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, has seized neighboring Kuwait, and there is little that the United States on its own can or will do about it. But if the lesson, "aggression pays," stands, America and the West will face trouble for years.

During the Cold War, Iraq would have thought twice before invading a nation friendly to the West. In an area so critical to the global balance of power, aggression against Kuwait would have set the hot line angrily buzzing between Washington and Moscow. Both superpowers would have made instant calculations about the risks of escalation. Because avoiding nuclear confrontation would have been their first priority, they would have done whatever was necessary to stop Iraq.

Not so now, and Hussein knows it. Iraq has no need for Soviet arms and so is impervious to Soviet influence. Ironically, we are learning that with no risk of Soviet-American crisis and thus no compelling mutual incentive to impose restraints, regional bullies can run free.

They can, that is, unless the United States is prepared to act.

Militarily, Iraq outclasses the United States in the region, and the American people will not countenance the shedding of blood over a far-off desert sheikdom, and Iraq is not a pushover like Panama. The United States has stopped all economic intercourse with Iraq, but the impact will be small. Politically, the United States has nothing to give or take away that Hussein prizes.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is the opening salvo of the post-Cold War era, however, and as such it is a major test of U.S. leadership. While independent gestures will have little effect in Baghdad, collective action can send a powerful message, even if it does not cause Iraq to reverse course.

Economic sanctions have a poor record in enforcing good behavior, but Iraq is particularly vulnerable. It must export oil to live and to maintain Hussein's political support, and that requires both transport (pipelines through Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and willing customers.

Unfortunately, the pipeline countries are unlikely to cooperate in countering the regional ruffian, certainly not unless there is a firm show of Western resolve. And there are many customers for Iraq's oil, principally among America's allies in Western Europe and Japan. They will argue that Iraq has every interest in maintaining its oil exports and that prices will stabilize. This short-term perspective will lead them to do little more than bemoan Iraq's trespass.

It is America's job to get them to do more. Largely because of the Reagan Administration's energy policies, U.S. dependence on oil imports is rising past the levels of the 1970s. The allies, too, remain vitally dependent on Persian Gulf supplies. After this week's actions, Hussein will be in the OPEC driver's seat. Kuwait's Arab neighbors have an incentive to truckle to the successful aggressor. And every Third World state with regional ambitions is watching what the West, and especially the United States, will do.

The Bush Administration must therefore press its allies to come down hard on Iraq, and do it now before the lesson of inaction sets in. That means as near-total an embargo on oil purchases as possible. The United States must ask the Saudis to act as swing producer and make up the shortfall; they could promptly increase production to offset the loss of all Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil. America's allies should be encouraged to speed Iran's reemergence as a balancing power in the Gulf.

Washington should also start building a consortium of both producers and consumers--a Persian Gulf compact--in concert against any state seeking to dominate the region. To stiffen backbones in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the United States must be prepared to make specific military commitments against further Iraqi aggression. President Bush must propose a comprehensive program to reduce U.S. energy import dependence. Above all, in this first test of the post-Cold War era, he must lead and induce others to follow.

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