The Bush Administration, looking beyond Tuesday’s deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, has quietly mobilized a special interagency task force to deal with the “end game” of the Persian Gulf crisis--the complex political problems that will exist whether the confrontation is resolved by diplomacy or war.
“Getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait is going to look easy compared to what must be accomplished afterwards to stabilize the region,” said an official close to the task force.
The new body, headed by Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates, has been ordered to develop post-crisis strategy on issues ranging from the future of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process and controlling chemical, biological and nuclear arms in the region.
Task force members include deputy-level officials from the National Security Council, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.
“The old way of doing things will no longer apply,” a U.S. official said in discussing what will be required to deal with conditions in the gulf after the immediate crisis ends. “We’ll have to start from scratch on many of these problems.”
Members of the task force and private U.S. analysts identify three broad priorities after Hussein is removed from Kuwait:
* Establishing a lasting balance of power in the gulf that includes not only Iraq and the vulnerable gulf sheikdoms but also Iran.
* Developing an arms control program that moves hand-in-glove with settlement of the Palestinian issue and other Middle East flashpoints.
* Addressing the economic and social disparity between the region’s super-rich and super-poor and pushing for democratization in conservative monarchies as well as socialist nations.
Within each category are daunting, multifaceted issues that have already triggered intense debate inside the Administration and among Mideast experts. And the slow pace of planning has drawn criticism.
“Preparations are paper thin,” admitted a U.S. official familiar with the planning. “There are a host of problems we should have moved on much, much earlier.”
Lamented another, “We seem to be jumping from lily pad to lily pad and not figuring out how to cross the river in big strides.”
Among the immediate questions now under consideration is how to reconstitute Kuwait. How will the ravaged country be put back together, who will provide security during the rebuilding? The oil-rich government can afford to replace what has been destroyed; experts agree the process will be time-consuming and will require massive foreign security assistance and technical expertise.
Until Kuwaiti sovereignty can be fully restored, “You want a military government that is not American, but Arab,” said a U.S. official. “This takes away the propaganda ploy that the Americans are using this (operation) as subterfuge to increase their presence in the gulf.”
“There will be a need for a security force that would be analogous to the kind of force that governed Berlin during the Cold War,” suggested William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, who was a Carter Administration staffer on the National Security Council.
“We ought, with the Kuwaitis, to be identifying that force now, but we haven’t yet,” acknowledged a senior U.S. official.
Quandt envisions a force of about 5,000, with symbolic American and Soviet contingents. Other analysts believe Americans should not be party to a U.N. or international peace force put in place after the crisis is resolved.
“I’ve always been puzzled why we haven’t moved to organize something during the waiting period--recruiting, training and then deploying in Saudi Arabia while we wait, which would have added to the pressure on the Iraqis,” Quandt said.
Besides providing physical security, looted hospitals, banks and other public facilities will have to be reopened, electricity and water restored. Much of this infrastructure is already damaged as a result of Iraq’s invasion and more damage will be done if fighting inside Kuwait proves necessary to eject Iraq.
Many installations are reportedly wired with explosives.
U.S. concern is also growing about the future of the Sabah family, which has ruled the city-state since 1756. “Either peacefully or by war, Kuwait will not be put back together again,” the senior U.S. official predicted.
“The battle between the Sabah family and those who stayed behind in Kuwait is going to be monumental. We’ve already had some reporting from people who’ve crossed the border (into Saudi Arabia) about the bitterness of those still in Kuwait toward their government, which fled when the first shots were fired. That’s another issue that’s going to have to be addressed.”
Another priority is establishing future security for Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials concede that even massive arms purchases will not ensure its security, or that of the smaller emirates, for the foreseeable future. Their populations are too small and their vast oil fields are too vulnerable to attack.
“A credible defense of Saudi Arabia will require something more than going back to the status quo ante,” said Quandt, who wrote a survey of the kingdom in the 1980s.
He predicted that tens of thousands of U.S. troops would stay behind for up to a year after a denouement in the gulf--and perhaps longer if the crisis is resolved by diplomacy, since that would probably leave Iraq with enormous military power.
The U.S. presence in the gulf, which ranged between 2,000 and 4,000 people in the 1980s, would need to be increased in the early 1990s to between 20,000 and 40,000, including naval forces, Quandt said.
The prolonged presence of a sizable American force, however, could unleash volatile opposition in the Mideast as it could be seen as an attempt to establish a permanent presence despite President Bush’s insistence that he does not want to keep one American soldier in the region one day longer than necessary.
Long term, the House of Saud should also be encouraged to keep Syrian, Egyptian and Pakistani combat troops on the ground, Quandt said. “We want to develop substance to build the new axis established during the crisis.”
Again, however, U.S. officials concede planning is only in the early stages. “Frankly, we don’t know what we favor,” said the source close to the task force.
Working out a lasting balance of power throughout the region will not be limited to the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. “One of the goals of post-crisis strategy should be to recreate strategic parity between Iraq and Iran,” said a senior U.S. military analyst. “For decades if not centuries, that has been the premise of maintaining peace. It will have to be again.”
“Iran can’t be left out of the equation. In fact, there’s a real danger to the gulf if, in a conflict, Iraq’s army is eliminated as a defense force. That opens the way for Tehran to re-emerge as the dominant player,” he said.
While the Bush Administration has already sought to bolster Saudi defense forces with new arms sales, U.S. officials are increasingly skeptical about the massive new sales as a solution.
“The introduction of weapons of mass destruction in so many countries has diminished enthusiasm for arms sales. Sizable quantities of materiel will be left behind in Saudi Arabia, but if we’re wise it should be mainly for defensive use,” said the military analyst.
The focus among analysts both in and outside government is instead on a new arms control agenda that will build down both conventional and unconventional weapons in the gulf, elsewhere in the Arab world and in Israel.
Such a comprehensive approach to regional arms control is gaining support in part because of a stark reality: If Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should voluntarily withdraw, U.N. Resolution 660 would allow the lifting of sanctions against Iraq, and Baghdad could continue its pursuit of major new weapons systems.
“It will be difficult to get new sanctions unless they’re applied to all parties in the region with similar arms,” including Israel, noted a U.S. official.
There is growing consensus within the Administration and among private analysts about linking a new arms control plan with broader negotiations on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“No one will give up a single gun unless the causes of future conflict are removed,” said another official close to the task force. “No Arab regime will disarm unless Israel also disarms. And you certainly won’t get Israel involved without moving on the peace process.”
“A lot of new thinking needs to go into the mechanism for reviving the peace process,” added Quandt. “It’s a non-starter to go back to where we were a year ago, trying to arrange Palestinian-Israeli talks on West Bank elections. We’d have a better chance today (with) something like regional talks on peace and security” that would bring all parties together on all major issues.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it will hold out more promise over the long haul than just getting Palestinians and Israel together on the short-term issue,” he said.
Consensus is also growing on a second broad-brush effort to deal with the uneven distribution of wealth in the region. “Post-crisis, we have to learn from what did have resonance in Saddam’s rhetoric, and that was the delta between haves and have-nots. His comments about Gucci sheiks were valid to a large extent,” said the military analyst.
“The Saudis, the Kuwaitis and the other emirates need to be encouraged to use their extraordinary wealth for priorities different from the 1980s, to sign on to a new form of petrodollar recycling, such as investment in the economic viability of their neighbors--Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and Yemen,” Quandt said.
He proposed a regional development bank modeled on liberal World Bank guidelines that would depoliticize decisions and avoid the use of petrodollars in political payoffs. The fund could be capitalized, for example, by $20 billion from the oil-rich gulf states and $20 billion from the rest of the world.
“We have to take this potent weapon--the disparity among Arabs--away from Saddam” and keep it from being a flashpoint for future conflicts, he said. “It could also foster peace by putting a premium on regional cooperation projects. It could even include the Israelis.”
Several U.S. officials suggest that countries such as Japan, which relies heavily on gulf oil to fuel its industries, should be play major roles in economic rebuilding and redistribution efforts after the crisis is resolved.
There is apparently one notable omission on the list of problems being addressed by U.S. officials: the future of Iraq.
“If the power structure collapses and there is no strong opposition force to step in, Iraq will have the makings of a very bad-news conflict with the potential for a civil war,” conceded the source close to the task force.
This is because deep communal and sectarian differences exist among rival Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities. “The chances of another Lebanon are there,” the official said. “We could see Iraq’s dismemberment. It’s going to be difficult to stabilize it. . . .”
Other Administration sources acknowledge that the United States has not identified political alternatives either inside Iraq or among exiled groups that could provide the strong leadership historically required in Iraq.
“The Saddam phenomenon is not new,” acknowledged the military analyst. “Iraqis historically respond to demonstrative leadership. They have been personally oriented in their politics for hundreds if not thousands of years.”
“We are quite agnostic about things inside Iraq. There’s no thinking about what happens to Iraq afterwards,” he added.
Yet U.S. officials say an unstable Iraq, thrown into chaos as rival parties vie for leadership, could create instability in oil markets and regional politics even more dangerous than those created by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“I’m confident that Iraq will get out of Kuwait, but I have no idea what the gulf will look like afterwards,” said a ranking Administration official.
Indeed, Administration sources have repeatedly tried to play down the importance of U.S. leadership in post-crisis strategy for fear the United States would appear to be trying to impose its will on either allies or enemies in the region.
“We have no intention of producing a blueprint but, in consultation with our friends, putting together something in the aftermath. We continue to develop ideas,” he said.