Now That We’ve Won the War, How Do We Win the Peace? : Military triumph must not be followed by political failure


Americans tend to go to war reluctantly. When they do go, they want to believe that they are fighting not only to defend the highest political and moral principles, but also to advance them as well.

“The world must be made safe for democracy,” Woodrow Wilson insisted in his declaration of war address in 1917. A generation later, as another global conflict raged, Franklin D. Roosevelt looked forward to a world “founded on four essential human freedoms"--freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear “anywhere in the world.”

More than noble-sounding slogans, these were sincere objectives whose appeal resonated far beyond American borders, making Wilson and Roosevelt esteemed international figures. But peace aims, like war aims, must accord with political and material realities if they are to have a chance to succeed. The ideals that helped motivate U.S. participation in both world wars were in the end by no means fully achieved. The years that followed those conflicts saw some people better off politically than they had been before, but many others worse off.



In the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait last Aug. 2, there was a lot of talk about the need to bring sweeping changes to the Persian Gulf, and the need to address anew some of the Middle East’s more intractable problems. Now, with unexpected suddenness, the postwar era looms. What should the United States, responsibly aware of the region’s intense problems and of its own limited abilities to dictate events, try to achieve?

At the outset, much depends on whether or for how long Saddam Hussein survives. Iraq and the region would, of course, be far better off if this thuggish megalomaniac went quickly, as a matter of moral justice and because the area’s chances for stability could be delayed if he remains on the scene. The way Saddam Hussein is deposed is largely unimportant, except that it shouldn’t be at the hands of the United States or any other Western country. His martyrdom is the last thing that is needed. Far better that he be dealt with by his own countrymen.

Saddam Hussein’s departure might be speeded if the nations arrayed against him make it clear that tight economic sanctions will be maintained against Iraq as long as he remains in power, and as long as Iraq’s behavior threatens any of its neighbors.


Even when economic sanctions are lifted, however, strict controls on arms shipments should remain. Hussein was able to pursue his hegemonic illusions because he spent tens of billions of dollars to build a powerful military machine. Stability in the Persian Gulf--even peace in the Middle East--requires that no country be militarily dominant. A postwar Iraq, especially one shorn of the aggressive Hussein regime, shouldn’t be so weak that it could not defend itself against Syria and Iran, both potential predators. But international cooperation is urgently needed to keep its military machine under control.

Washington should lead on this issue. Most of all, Iraq must be denied the means to rebuild its chemical- and nuclear-war capacities. Other states should similarly be denied the means to develop these weapons. No Gulf country should be in a position where it can credibly contemplate aggression, and none should be irresponsibly helped to build a chemical or nuclear arsenal. Sure, everyone assumes that Israel--another regional power--possesses the nuclear power and that Syria has chemical weapons. Thus some of the genies are already out of the bottle; but the challenge for the world right now is to dampen down the problem, not ignite it further.


Stability also depends to no small extent on the support that leaders command from their people. There has been a lot of talk about bringing democracy to newly liberated Kuwait. That would be splendid. It would be no less laudable if free institutions and democratic governments could emerge in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf sheikdoms and everywhere else in the Arab world, as well as in Iran. Laudable, but not likely. The plain fact is that Western political values remain essentially alien to these societies, and there is no reason to think that will soon change. The best that can be hoped for is some easing of repressive controls.

The fundamental antipathy of Islamic societies toward the political values and culture of the West is one reason why American land forces won’t be invited to remain in the area for very long. That’s just as well. If a peacekeeping force is needed to help protect Kuwait, it should be mainly Muslim in composition, and preferably under U.N. auspices. U.S. ground forces should be withdrawn as soon as it is practical to do so. An invited naval and even an air presence, at some fairly isolated location, could be useful as a deterrent to future aggression. But ground forces would soon become a source of local friction and at some point almost certainly a magnet for terrorism. The Lebanon nightmare is one that must not be allowed to recur.


Hussein made points among the masses by claiming that his invasion was prompted in part by Kuwait’s refusal to share more of its great oil revenues with less fortunate fellow Arabs. He was lying; oil-rich Iraq, except for financing terrorists, has never been known for its generosity to other Arabs, and there’s no reason to think that things would have changed after it commandeered Kuwait’s enormous oil reserves. Sharing the wealth nonetheless has appeal to the Arab world’s have-nots; more important, it could make a contribution toward stability. Some mechanism to encourage greater economic improvement in the area is needed. A regional development bank in which the industrialized countries might participate is one possibility. That bank might also help underwrite the huge rebuilding programs for Kuwait and, perhaps at the appropriate time, for Iraq, though with Gulf money, of course, rather than American.


Saddam Hussein told a second big lie about his invasion, claiming that it was the first step toward “liberating” Palestine from Israel’s rule. Most of the Arab world seems to have been unimpressed, but Palestinians in Jordan and in the occupied territories acted as if they believed him. So, to their subsequent misfortune, did Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Backing the wrong side can prove costly. The PLO has now lost its Persian Gulf paymasters. More seriously, it has lost much of its political standing, especially in Western Europe.

PLO or not, the Palestinian issue still cries out to be addressed. It is unnatural and it has proven to be mutually destructive for 1.7 million Palestinians to live without political rights under an Israeli occupation that has worked to poison attitudes on both sides. The question is how change can come. Not, certainly, through the kind of pointless multinational conference that many Arabs want. Such a meeting would only substitute for their own refusal to confront Israel directly across the negotiating table.

A conference would inevitably see the most radical demands being pressed by both sides, intensifying the deadlock. Far better for the United States to try to encourage bilateral talks and confidence-building measures among Israel and its Arab antagonists, including Syria, traditionally the most radical and hostile of them all. At the same time Washington should make clear its interest in seeing moderate Palestinian leaders emerge in the occupied territories, as an alternative to the PLO. Israel has never been comfortable with the prospect of a local Palestinian leadership that it can’t control; neither, obviously, has the PLO. The time may have come, though, to try to force the issue, recognizing that if a Palestinian settlement is ever to be achieved it can only be on the basis of significant political and territorial concessions by each side. The maximalists in both camps refuse to acknowledge that, but their antipathy doesn’t make the truth of the matter any less compelling.

There is plenty on the postwar agenda, then, as the United States ponders its moves. Now, as always, excessive political ambitions--"the illusion of American omnipotence” as the historian D.W. Brogan called it--have to be avoided. The United States can’t reshape the Middle East. Maybe, though, it can play a lead role in moving the region toward a more stable future. That would be accomplishment enough.