In rallying the international alliance against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, President Bush repeatedly invoked the vision of a new world order distinguished by global consensus and the rule of law. But in the aftermath of the victory, Iraq and Kuwait have plunged into the old Middle Eastern disorder of bloodletting and reprisal.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein is savagely repressing rebellious Shiites and Kurds, as he has in the past. The difference this time is that a U. S. occupying army is watching the bloodshed and--on orders from Washington--doing nothing more than downing two Iraqi jets. In Kuwait, under the gaze of U. S. liberators, Kuwaiti soldiers and vigilantes have rounded up some 2,000 Palestinians and other supposed Iraqi collaborators and have tortured and killed dozens.
By doing nothing to prevent the bloodshed, Bush may be frittering away much of the respect he has earned in the Middle East since August. His inaction could doom thousands of Iraqis and Palestinians to refugee camps or death. It could also kill hopes for progress on Arab-Israeli peace and for reforming the region's medieval political systems. "Iraq and Kuwait are very troubling," says William B. Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institu-tion in Washington. He says that events in Iraq are "becoming a major embarrassment."
WESTERN MEDDLER? The Administration claims it doesn't want to meddle in Iraq's internal politics. Bush is also under pressure to bring American soldiers home quickly, and he is reluctant to encourage insurrections in Iraq that could break up the country.
But Bush is already too deeply enmeshed in Iraq to wash his hands of it now. He has publicly called for the Iraqi people to depose Saddam. And the war, by disabling the central government, constituted intervention on a grand scale. In failing to address the turmoil created by the war, Bush risks being viewed as one more Western meddler whose only interest is an uninterrupted supply of hydrocarbons. And if he doesn't stop Saddam, the dictator's brutal tactics will create thousands of new refugees--a big headache for Turkey, a U. S. ally.
Action need not mean Americans fighting Saddam on the ground. There are many options short of sending troops to Baghdad. The U. S. should begin by warning Saddam to stop using helicopter gunships on the rebels. That would aid the Kurds, whose mountain redoubts are inaccessible to ground forces. It would also prevent Saddam from bombing and gassing their villages. The U. S. could extend the ban to tanks and heavy artillery and enforce it from the air.
More important, the U. S. should make clear that the world will keep tight economic sanctions on Iraq until it has a government committed to a certain standard of decency. A regime that kills and tortures its own people and denies political freedom to disenfranchised groups such as Shiites and Kurds doesn't meet that standard. Washington should also promise to clear the way for rebuilding once such a government is in place. Of course, some coalition members will grumble. The Saudis fear growing Iranian influence in Iraq, and the Soviets still hope to rescue their client. But the U. S. has the muscle to push such conditions through the U. N.
Continued economic sanctions would also give Iraqis an incentive to get rid of Saddam, whose survival will be a chronic headache for Washington. Allowing Saddam to crush the rebellion invites Iraqis and others in the region to conclude that Bush now doesn't mind doing business with the weakened dictator.
The U. S. also needs to lay down the law to Kuwait's rulers, the al-Sabahs. If need be, U. S. troops should be deployed to discourage kidnappings of Palestinians. American authorities should insist that those unjustly detained be quickly released. The U. S. should also urge the al-Sabahs to move quickly to restore the parliament, suspended in 1986, and to institute other democratic reforms.
Bush's diplomatic achievements in rallying support against Saddam were on a par with America's battlefield performance. He united the Arab world against a country other than Israel. That coup presents him with a tremendous opportunity to foster regional change. From the Soviet Union to Mexico, the U. S. has prodded governments toward more democratic practices, especially respect for human rights. Such ideals will be tougher to achieve in the Middle East. But if Bush doesn't offer Iraqis and Kuwaitis a piece of the new world order, he will have little chance of extending it to the rest of the region -- much less the rest of the globe.