With the subtlety of an orangutan at a garden party, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has demonstrated that the post-Cold War world is not going to be all tea and crumpets. The prospects for East-West conflict may have declined to the point of disappearance, but Iraq’s 12-hour invasion of Kuwait on Thursday is a sample of what the 1990s may hold for the Third World.
Arguably, there is no region in the world where European, Japanese and American interests overlap as distinctly as in the Persian Gulf, where more than 60% of the world oil reserves are found. In fact, considered together, Iraq and Kuwait account for nearly a fifth of all global reserves. Moreover, by snatching Kuwait, the Iraq army is now poised a mere 250 miles from the rich oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
It would be hard to construct a more compelling test case for concerted international action than the case of Kuwait. The governments of the Third World are, of necessity, avid proponents of sovereignty and independence. After all, given the arbitrary boundaries that define many Third World states, Iraq’s action is hardly one that can be allowed to stand unanswered.
Yet, it is clear that the Iraqis are not likely to be dislodged by military force. Iran, enmeshed in myriad domestic problems, is unlikely to reignite a war with Iraq. The Hollywood-set armies of the Arabian Peninsula pose no serious challenge to the formidable 100,000-man Iraq invasion force. The Saudis, consistent in their timidity, failed even to launch a symbolic flight of jet fighters, and the fear and trembling riposte of the gulf emirates needs no comment.
Even with Saudi cooperation--by no means a given--it would take the United States a month to put a serious military force in place, and even then the outcome of a battle with the Iraq army would still be uncertain. In short, Hussein enjoys a highly advantageous military position. Just as obviously, the Iraqi bully is not going to be cajoled or enticed to evacuate Kuwait.
The only body that enjoys the legitimacy and the international support to successfully compel Hussein to remove his forces from Kuwait is the United Nations. Not long ago this would have seemed a preposterous claim, but the United Nations has enjoyed a real rejuvenation over the past three or four years.
The dramatic improvement of relations between Moscow and Washington has enabled the Security Council, since mid-1987, to function more or less as the collegial body anticipated in the U.N. Charter, rather than as a great-power battleground. The Soviet Union’s prompt decision--within hours of the Iraqi invasion--to cut off its arms flow to Iraq illustrates the extent to which the Soviet stance has changed in recent years.
Today even cynical diplomats are speculating about the application of the collective security provisions described in Chapter VII of the Charter but rarely exercised. It is important to note that the Security Council’s condemnation of Iraq’s blatant invasion made specific reference to articles in Chapter VII, thereby opening up the possibility of a military action under the U.N. flag.
No serious observer expects the United Nations to mount a large expeditionary force to counter the Iraqi army. However, a symbolic force linked to an extensive program of punitive economic and diplomatic sanctions may be essential to restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty.
The key to effective action is a sustained global consensus and the pivot point of that consensus is a unified position between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this regard, the joint statement of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, issued Friday in Moscow, is a major move in the right direction. Significantly, the two superpowers signaled that they no longer see the Third World as a prime arena of competition. Instead, they committed themselves to quelling rather than fueling the crisis in the gulf.
We can only hope that the Moscow statement will stiffen the backbone of the Arab League, which demonstrated an utter lack of resolve in its first meeting on the crisis. It will be very difficult for U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and the Security Council to shape effective action in the absence of a request for assistance from the league.
Given an Arab League request, an internationally representative force of 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers could oversee an Iraqi withdrawal and the restoration of Kuwaiti independence. Iraq claims to have no territorial ambitions in Kuwait. Obviously, this sounds like unsliced baloney, but it may be wise to take Iraq at her word in order to win her assent for the introduction of a U.N. force.
Both of the superpowers could provide timely logistical and transportation support to put the U.N. force in place. Moreover, Moscow and Washington are both richly capable of providing satellite surveillance to confirm the evacuation of Iraqi forces from the border region.
Backed by a program of economic sanctions designed to inflict real financial pain on Iraq, the introduction of a U.N. force may just be the trick. But the leading oil consumers--the United States, Western Europe and Japan--must be willing to take tough steps. This would entail drawing on the stocks of the strategic reserve to prevent Iraq from achieving its goals of $30-a-barrel oil. In the case of the United States, reserves total nearly 600 million barrels of oil, or the equivalent of 900 days of imports from Iraq and Kuwait.
In so many ways, the key player in this scenario is Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has the excess capacity to undermine Iraq’s ambitions, and it is also the site of one of the two major pipelines through which Iraq exports its oil. The other pipeline runs through Turkey which, given international pressure, might be persuaded to interdict the flow of oil.
In a nutshell, if the Saudis can garner the will to act, they can undermine Saddam Hussein’s ambitions and help to turn a military success into a economic disaster. It goes without saying that Washington--and Moscow, for that matter--must go to lengths to reassure the badly shaken kingdom. The outcome of the Iraqi invasion will turn on how much confidence can be successfully instilled in the Saudis.
This past week witnessed a reconfiguration of the Middle East chessboard. If the invasion of Kuwait is allowed to go unanswered, the Iraqi orangutan can be counted on not only to attempt to capture a few more pieces, but, in the process, to topple the whole board. There is no alternative for the international community but to act cooperatively and purposefully, and the only existing mechanism for that is the United Nations.