"Every war will astonish you," Dwight D. Eisenhower once said. And so the lightning U. S.-led military victory over Saddam Hussein will claim its place in history for far more than its lopsided outcome and its eerily detached destructiveness. Along with the unforgettable images of Iraqi soldiers surrendering by the thousands, Operation Desert Storm will be remembered for the number of prewar assumptions that it exploded like so many rockets in the night.
The vaunted Iraqi military was crushed in a 100-hour ground assault that President Bush ordered halted on Feb. 27, declaring that "our military objectives are met." A patchwork coalition, including the U. S. and Arab states, defied all predictions that it would fall apart as soon as the shooting started. A deadly, high-tech air campaign defied experts' predictions that bombing couldn't cripple dug-in troops. A wave of Iraqi-inspired terrorist attacks never materialized. Nor did predicted pro-Iraqi upheaval throughout the Moslem world. The minuscule casualty toll for U. S.-led forces--just 79 Americans died in Operation Desert Storm through Feb. 27--was less than one-tenth of even the most optimistic projections.
With the clean, quick success, President Bush made good on his boast that the gulf war would not reprise Vietnam. In his moment of triumph, the President drew on burgeoning U. S. patriotism to declare the dawn of "a new American century."
So much for war. What about the far more difficult task of winning the peace? If the President's vaunted "new world order" is to be more than a one-shot rescue of Saudi and Kuwaiti autocrats, Bush must seal his military triumph by improvising a new political structure for the war-torn Middle East.
The task is daunting. The region is riven by ancient animosities--between Sunni and Shiite, between secular and religious forces, between rich and poor, between Arab and Jew. Unless the structure of a durable peace can be built, the region's scramble for ever more deadly arms will quickly resume. And the new, harder edge to relations between Washington and Moscow even raises the possibility that the Middle East could once again become a caldron of East-West tensions. "The question," says Michael Mandelbaum, an analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations, "is whether this war is going to shock the region out of its pathological political culture."
A chilling imponderable. But as occupying troops begin sifting through the wreckage of a liberated Kuwait, more urgent tasks face the coalition. Five hundred oil wells in Kuwait are aflame and could burn for months. Massive U. S. bombing has knocked out water and electricity in Kuwait City and much of Iraq, raising the specter of epidemics. The Pentagon tallied 50,000 Iraqi prisoners of war before the speed of the roundup swamped the count. Officials say the total could hit 200,000. Until it can repatriate this captive army, the coalition must find a way to feed and house the defeated enemy.
WAR CRIMES? In the short run, Kuwait will operate under martial law. The U. S.-led alliance may also be forced to police southern Iraq. "If people are dying from epidemics and civil unrest, the allies could lose the peace long before they get to any of these longer-range issues," says former State Dept. official Helmut Sonnenfeldt.
And what of Saddam Hussein? If the Iraqi leader survives his humiliating brush with modern warfare, will Bush extend the mandate of Operation Desert Storm by attempting to try him for war crimes? Will the coalition maintain sanctions on a defeated Iraq as proposed by Secretary of State James A. Baker III? If Saddam remains in power, not only the ability of the U. S. to bring troops home but the entire timetable for postwar reconstruction will be on hold. "An irredentist Saddam vastly complicates the postwar picture," says one senior Administration official.
If Saddam is toppled, the allies would face a different set of problems. The Iraqi strongman and his Baath Socialist Party are the only political forces in Baghdad. Any post-Saddam government would likely be highly unstable, making it hard for Washington to demobilize. The U. S. will begin bringing troops home soon after the main military campaign is over. But, says one high-ranking Western diplomat in Saudi Arabia, U. S. forces will remain in the region for a minimum of seven months and might stay as long as 18. Some officials believe that up to 200,000 U. S. soldiers will be in the Middle East a year from now.
A large, continuing U. S. troop presence won't please America's conservative gulf allies, especially the Saudis. The Bush Administration is already debating whether the U. S. should pack up and come home as quickly as possible or plan to maintain ground forces in the region for the foreseeable future.
Despite these risks, strategists at the National Security Council and the State Dept. see the victory as a chance to end 12 years of stalemate in the region. There's precedent for such optimism. It was the October, 1973, Yom Kippur war that led to rapprochement between Egypt and Israel and ultimately produced the Camp David accords. Administration planners sense that the war with Iraq has created an opportunity to parlay the settlement into constructive change. "You're going to see a new equation in the Middle East, with radicalism discredited and the moderate states playing a much more important role," says a Republican political adviser with close ties to Baker.
That thinking seems a bit romantic. The Administration is working from a less lofty thesis: By organizing the Arab world around something other than hatred of Israel and by saving the gulf from Saddam, Bush and Baker can now draw the blueprint of a new security and economic architecture for the region.
Through a beefed-up naval and air presence in the gulf and his own personal diplomacy, Bush will try to coax moderate Arabs into a durable alliance that could keep the peace at vastly reduced levels of armaments. The new defense arrangements would be based on the existing six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, with the added defense muscle of Egypt and the support of the U. S.
Weaning the Arabs from their obsession with security through arms would free up billions of dollars for regional reconstruction and narrow the gap between Arab haves and have-nots. In mid-February, the GCC promised to set up a $15 billion development fund to assist Egypt and other poor Arab states. "If the U. S. manages things skillfully, people in the region will see that aggression doesn't pay," says Marvin Feuerwerger, a military strategist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
BIG INFLUENCE. Washington also vows to tighten controls on the spread of nuclear technology and chemical and biological weapons to the Mideast. And some State Dept. planners figure that reports of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait will prod backers of Saddam such as Jordan and the Palestinians to disavow their allegiance and move toward the rich Arab states.
For the moment, the U. S. enjoys greater political influence in the Mideast than at any time since World War II. "What you've got is a group of countries that bet their lives on cooperation with the U. S.," says Gary Sick, a former National Security Council Mideast specialist. "You're not going to see a return to business as usual."
But the U. S. still must struggle against the desire of Arab states to restore the pre-Aug. 2 world. And relying on the historically timorous GCC to keep the peace is a dubious proposition. Says Helmut Hubel, a Mideast expert at Bonn's German Foreign Policy Society: "I wouldn't speak of a postwar peace order, because the basic conditions for order aren't there."
The economic landscape of the region is no more promising. Baker hopes to transfer wealth from oil states to their less fortunate neighbors. But Kuwait faces a reconstruction bill of as much as $100 billion.
The Saudis are already borrowing to fund Desert Storm, and even a brief dip in oil prices could hobble King Fahd's ability to help. "If you really want to see the Saudis turn purple and begin to choke, mention their duty to redistribute income in the Arab world," says a high-ranking Western diplomat in Riyadh.
At best, aid to the poorer Arab states will be highly selective. Egypt and Syria will be rewarded for their help. But no one is willing to aid Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, or the Palestine Liberation Organization, which sided with Iraq. And that could inflame radicals. "Not only will the gulf war make the region as a whole much poorer, but the inequalities between the have and have-not states are likely to become even more pronounced," says Yahya M. Sadowski of the Brookings Institution.
As a result, Jordan is becoming the region's new powder keg. Its economy, crippled by the embargo of Iraq, faces the task of absorbing thousands of impoverished Palestinians that Kuwait and other gulf states want to expel. The turmoil could topple King Hussein. "The major political disruption from this could be the disappearance of King Hussein," says one State Dept. specialist. "It would pull the plug out of the center of the Middle East."
To keep the region's passions in check, Bush will have to depend more than ever on his coalition partners and Moscow. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, still smarting from Bush's rebuff of his last-minute efforts to avert a ground war, now terms superpower relations "brittle." With the destruction of its longtime client, Iraq, as a military power, the Kremlin fears U. S. hegemony in the Mideast. Moscow has already delivered MiG-29s to Iran, which is reemerging as a major regional player still hostile to the U. S. And there is growing concern in Washington that Moscow will work to restore its arms links to Syria and even Iraq. "If the Soviets feel they are being stiffed and excluded, what incentive will they have for restraint?" asks one State Dept. official.
Coalition partners, too, will have trouble maintaining their wartime cohesion. France, a major supplier of arms to the Mideast, may be ready to take up where it left off. German companies are chafing at Bonn's efforts to clamp down on exports of chemical and biological weapons technology. Even Britain may part with Washington on what it sees as the most pressing task--restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who met with Baker on Feb. 27, says that issue remains the core "motivation" for the region's arms race. European allies are expected to renew their call for an Arab-Israeli peace conference, a step opposed by both Washington and Jerusalem.
WHO OWES WHAT? Conference or no, the U. S. seems well-poised to restart the peace process. Bush saved Arab states from Saddam and defended Israel from Scud attacks. And in checking its desire to retaliate, Israel also made it much easier for Arab leaders to stick with the coalition.
But who owes what to whom? Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is talking as though his support for the U. S. should exempt Israel from any concessions. Arab leaders are equally adamant that nothing can change in the Mideast until Israel negotiates a Palestinian homeland.
The PLO's new status as a pariah even in the Arab world only complicates matters. With the gulf states, Washington, and Israel refusing to have anything to do with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, even Israelis who favor direct talks with the Palestinians now don't know who to negotiate with. But "there is no sign yet that Palestinians will think in terms of another organization," says Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University. "If there is any shift, it will be toward radical groups."
George Bush is the first President in a half century to win a large-scale military victory. But the Mideast adventure came as the vital U. S.-Soviet relationship was entering a particularly delicate phase. Reconstructing the region will place major demands on the President just when his attention is needed to help forge a new order in Europe. Unless he manages the peace as skillfully as he did the war, President Bush may sift through the glorious clippings from Operation Desert Storm years from now and ponder the long-term political consequences of his battlefield victory.
KEEPING THE POSTWAR PEACE
After the gulf war ends, the U.S.-led
coalition plans these steps to bolster
U.S. and allied troops withdraw from southern Iraq
U.S. troops remain in Kuwait for three months of martial law. A U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force replaces them
The U.S. draws down a symbolic number of ground forces from Saudi Arabia at the war's conclusion. A full drawdown could take 7 to 18 months
The U.S. beefs up its naval and air force presence in the region and leaves behind enough materiel to equip an army division in Saudi Arabia
Gulf Cooperation Council states, together with Egypt and possibly Syria, forge a defense pact to police the gulf