It's None Too Soon To Start Planning The Peace

Saddam Hussein, whether he survives the gulf crisis or goes down in flames, will haunt the U. S. and its allies in the months and years ahead. Few Americans see the Iraqi leader as anything but a thug. But millions in the Middle East accept his claim to be an Arab Robin Hood--a champion of the Palestinians, Islam, and the Arab poor. In just a few months, Saddam's bellicose stand against the U. S. over Kuwait has revitalized the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. And he has spurred on an Islamic fundamentalist movement that is growing ever stronger in Jordan, the gulf, and North Africa.

So the U. S. ought to be planning the peace with as much attention as it has been devoting to preparations for war. Otherwise, the effort to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait could backfire, further radicalizing the region, unleashing a tide of anti-Americanism, and threatening the Saudi and gulf regimes that the U. S. forces are trying to protect. "To contain the damage that's likely to be done to our position in the area, we are going to have to turn quickly to a different agenda in the Middle East," says William B. Quandt of the Brookings Institution, speaking about the aftermath of the crisis.

HAVE-NOTS. The U. S. could preempt much ill will by announcing a new initiative--after Kuwait is liberated and free of any "linkage"--to tackle the Arab-Israeli dispute. Although Saddam certainly did not invade Kuwait to free Palestinians, he has convinced many Arabs that there is no reason to pull out of Kuwait unless Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian lands. Even Arab friends of the U. S. accuse Washington of applying a double standard by allowing 23 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza--although that occupation came only after Arab threats led to war in 1967.

Washington should also try to come down on the side of the have-nots. Saddam has struck a rich vein of resentment by portraying the Kuwaiti and Saudi royal families as profligates. A U. S.-backed regional development effort financed by the wealthy oil producers might curb some of the bitterness felt toward rich Arabs.

To a surprising degree, both the Palestinian problem and economic disparities feed the fires of militant Islam, which thrives on anti-Israeli feeling and resentment over social injustice. Saddam has cleverly posed as a defender of Islam against infidel invaders, leading many of the Islamic preachers in the region to give him their wholehearted support. The increasingly influential fundamentalists showed their strength again last month when five were appointed to the Cabinet of once pro-Western Jordan.

Until now, the U. S. Administration, which is preoccupied with getting Iraq out of Kuwait, hasn't had much to say about its postcrisis plans. "There seems to be little consideration ofthe key issues, meaning the consequences over the longer run," says A. Richard Norton, a senior fellow at the International Peace Academy in New York.

The Europeans have been more forthcoming. With solid backing from France and Spain, Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis is launching a Conference for Security & Cooperation in the Mediterranean that will consider problems ranging from economic development to regional disarmament. He expects to convene a 35-nation preparatory meeting later this year. "The instability of the Middle East," says De Michelis, is making Europe "less secure on our southern flank."

The Europeans feel more urgency than the Americans about dealing with Arab and Islamic radicalism. North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, which are home to a total of 60 million Muslims, are right on Europe's doorstep, and tensions are escalating. Just last month, bloody riots that left 33 dead rocked the Moroccan city of Fez.

BIG MISTAKE? The Europeans, who are more vulnerable to terrorism than Americans, also want to cool off the growing friction between their own far rightists and the millions of North African and Turkish immigrants living in the European Community.

Regrettably, no one seems to be giving much thought to Iraq's future after the crisis. But punishing Iraq severely could be a big mistake. Heavy loss of Arab life will weigh against the U. S. in the region. And a leaderless, devastated Iraq could spawn an unhealthy resurgence of Iran, the other big gulf power. On the other hand, if Saddam survives, as many experts predict he will, Washington will eventually have to come to terms with him as well as with Teheran.

In any event, the U. S. is not going to be able to disengage quickly from the Middle East. Large numbers of American troops will have to stay on to help restore regional security. They may be needed again unless the fundamental problems of the area are addressed.