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The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1991, Vol. XXVII, Number 10

Bush boo-booed.  He made a serious mistake.  The failure to support the Kurdish rebels against Saddam Hussein may blow away the fruits of victory. 

Bush had Hussein on the run. The dictator’s army was in disarray, his image of power was shattered, his control of his country was vanishing.  Very little effort would have been required to topple him.  One day more of fighting to prevent the remnants of the Republican Guard to escape (sic) the American trap with their equipment.  An order (seriously meant) to shoot down Iraqi helicopters flying over Kurdish territory.  Military supplies sent to reinforce the Kurdish rebels. 

The opportunity for victory was given up.  Americans stood passively by to watch Hussein crush the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions, even though most people understood that there would be no Allied or UN triumph until Hussein fell.  Bush’s continuous appeal for the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator was an acknowledgment of that reality. 

Why did Bush make the decision he did? 

The nicest (although naive) explanation is that he did not want to exceed the mandate of the UN which authorized the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait, but did not sanction interfering in the internal affairs of Iraqi politics.  Going beyond the mandate would anger the Russian and Chinese and undermine the possibility of future cooperation.  And after all, if we are morally obliged to overthrow the government of Iraq, are we not also morally obliged to intervene in other countries with governments equally dictatorial?  Once we start with internal political rearrangements where would we stop? 

A more realistic explanation is that the State Department feared that Iraq was falling apart.  They feared that Shiite fundamentalists, under the control of the Persians, would take over the country.  They feared that Kurdish rebels, proclaiming an independent Kurdistan, would threaten the goodwill of our Turkish and Syrian allies, who have substantial Kurdish minorities whom they repress.  They believed that a dismembered Iraq would be a source of chaos and turmoil in the Middle East, that only a strong military tyranny can hold Iraq together and that the only available military able to perform this task was the Sunni officer corps of the Baath Party.  Surely, they reasoned, some ambitious general, aware that America will allow the old military to stay in power, would choose to overthrow Saddam and his immediate circle of ruthless supporters. 

But the State Department reasoning is false.  And it led to a fatal decision. 

The prestige of the United Nations was not enhanced by the refusal to intervene.  It was diminished.  The man who chose to defy the United Nations is still in power with a substantial army to support him.  The United Nations cannot arrange to remove all aggressive dictatorial governments.  But it should not hesitate to do so when it has the power and the opportunity to accomplish the task, especially when the government in question is a source of potential future defiance. 

The cooperation of the Russian and the Chinese will not be the result of American caution.  It will flow from the perception that the United Nations is working and that America is serious about creating a new world order in which defiant oppressors will not only be punished but will also be removed from power. 

Chaos is not the only alternative to Saddam Hussein and military dictatorship.  Both the leaders of the Kurdish insurgents and the Arab Shiiites have publicly stated that they do not want to dismember Iraq and have pledged their cooperation in creating a democratic coalition government.  The Iraqi Kurds know that an independent Kurdistan is unacceptable for their Turkish and Persian neighbors.  They are willing to settle for a regional autonomy within a united Iraq.  The Iraqi Shiiites know that a dismembered Iraq would deprive them of the oil revenues they need for their own development.  And, being Arab Shiites, they do not want to fall under the control of their Persian co-religionists. 

What harm could have come from attempting to create an alternative coalition government to Saddam Hussein, which would have included Kurds, Shiites and opposition Sunnis?  Such a coalition would have received the support of Turkey and Iran.  Even the Russians and the Chinese would have been reluctant to support Saddam Hussein in the face of his collapse and the endorsement of major Middle Eastern powers.  But the alternative needed the direction and orchestration of the United States. And they were not forthcoming, even though the euphoria of military victory would have provided the momentum. 

The Bush government was obsessed with the fear of being sucked into a long and inconclusive civil war from which the Americans could not easily extract themselves and in which mounting casualties and inconclusive results would undermine American popular support.  But their fear was exaggerated and misplaced. 

What will America now do with a resurgent Hussein?  How will it counter his provocative and unrepentant propaganda?  How will it ensure compliance with the terms of the permanent ceasefire after its troops are withdrawn?  After all, the reason military action was taken was because economic sanctions were not working? (sic)  What guarantee do we have that they will work now?  And who will serve as the protectors of the Kurdish insurgents and Arab Shiites who were encouraged to rebel by American propaganda?  Why should Israel be persuaded to make concessions to the Palestinians, if the Americans are unwilling to force the Iraqis to make concessions to their Kurds? 

Image is not trivial.  The image of a strong victorious determined and idealistic America, which was so strong at the time of the military victory, is vanishing.  In its place has emerged the image of a contentious, fearful and confused America that is only concerned with its immediate vested interests and is unable to protect its own allies.  In the long run such a vision is not good for the long-run vested interests of America and the new world order Bush so loudly touted. 

The moment of opportunity has passed.  We are now into damage control. Living with regret is indeed useless.  But those of us who expected more of Bush have a right to be mad.  Wasting victory is not easy to take. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, February 1991, Vol. XXVII, Number 7

I am writing this message on January 11, four days before the UN deadline for Saddam Hussein to pull out of Kuwait. 

I do not know what will happen.  I do not know whether Saddam will choose to withdraw from Kuwait or to fight.  I do not know whether there will be war or peace. 

But what I do know is that I support the policy of George Bush (for whom I did not vote) in the Gulf crisis.  No other alternative seems able to do what needs to be done. 

Why do I support the Bush policy? 

I support Bush because Saddam Hussein is a major threat to world order.  The end of the cold War is no guarantee of a peaceful planet.  Ambitious rulers of ambitious Third World countries, armed with the sophisticated weapons of the West, can ultimately prove as provocative and as dangerous as the Soviet Union.  The Muslim world, in particular, dominated by the rival ideologies of religious fundamentalism and national socialism, has the potential for widespread defiance of peaceful coexistence.  The issue is more than oil.  If Saddam Hussein succeeds in holding onto Kuwait and proceeds to develop nuclear weapons, he would have no compunction to use or share, the message will be clear.  Any tinpot dictator, with guts and guns, can do what he chooses to do without any fear of effective reprisal.  The dream of a functioning United Nations, within the framework of a peaceful and disciplined world order, a dream that the end of the Cold War seemed to be turning into a reality, would be completely shattered.  Whether Kuwait was a feudal tyranny or not is completely irrelevant.  It was invaded and annexed against the will of its people. 

I support Bush because he has not chosen to make the punishment of Iraq an exclusively American action.  Not only has he mobilized the support of our traditional allies but he has also secured the endorsement of the United Nations.  The confrontation with Iraq is not an American confrontation.  It is the confrontation of the world community with a recalcitrant nation.  Even many Arab nations have joined this international effort.  The crime of Saddam Hussein is not the violation of American economic interests  The crime of Hussein is against world order and against the United Nations which embodies that ideal.  I am not naive about the Western fear of losing control of critical oil fields.  But I am aware that most actions have more than one motivation.  The American obsession with oil does not diminish the callous rejection of peaceful coexistence engineered by Saddam and his Iraqi devotees. 

I support Bush because economic sanctions will not work to persuade Hussein to withdraw. If there is no military threat, lowered standards of living and deteriorating military equipment will not be sufficient to persuade a fanatic regime to surrender, especially if the Iraqi people see themselves as the vanguard of an Arab resistance movement.  In time holes will open in the embargo circle as the nations of the world weary of their vigil and the Arab people come to revere Saddam as a successful symbol of defiance of “Western Imperialism”.  The threat of military action is not intended to produce war.  It is intended to persuade the adversary to avoid war.  But if there is no military ultimatum, a determined adversary, inured to suffering, will find no reason to change the course of his action. 

I support Bush because waiting for our allies to make equal sacrifices is to abdicate our responsibility.  Whether we like it or not, our role has been and continues to be parental.  Parents cannot afford to be peevish, withdrawing into a corner until the children choose to behave.  It is certainly true that nations like France, Germany and Japan, who will benefit mightily from American sacrifice, ought to be doing more than they are doing.  But their refusal to fulfill their moral responsibilities does not absolve us from fulfilling ours.  Hopefully, in time, our role as the leader of the democratic nations will become less parental and their role will become more mature.  I do not prescribe to a prevailing libeeral critique that American leadership is nothing more than Western Imperialism and that American foreign policy is devoid of any idealism.  On the contrary, despite our many deficiencies, the only great power with any willingness to defend the maintenance of world order has been America.  The invasions of Grenada and Panama were not the invasion of Kuwait.  They enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of these nations, who viewed the military action as liberation. 

I support Bush because a conflict with Iraq is not the same as the war in Vietnam.  The war in Vietnam was part of the Cold War, a war against the powerful Soviet Union and, therefore, unwinable (sic).  (It is amazing that Saddam chose to invade Kuwait after the Cold War had come to an end and after his Soviet allies were willing to come to his aid.) But Iraq stands virtually alone, devoid of powerful allies and assaulted by hostile Arab powers.  Iraq stands against the world.  Her vulnerability is far greater than Vietnam.  If the legacy of Vietnam in America is that we are no longer willing to engage in any military action short of the defense of American territory from aggressive assault, then the legacy is dangerous.  As the one remaining world power, we have world responsibilities.  The defense of world order is one of them. 

I hope that by the publication of this message Saddam has chosen to withdraw from Kuwait.  If he has, it will be because of the threat of military action.  But if he remains in Kuwait, the military alternative, painful as it appears to be, is the only effective answer to this provocation. 

Whether there is peace or war it is clear that the Gulf crisis is inevitably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the minds of both our Arab and European allies.  The resolution of the gulf (sic) crisis must ultimately lead to an American initiative, under the aegis of the United Nations, to find a solution to the Arab-Jewish struggle.  The disciplining of Saddam may have positive consequences in other parts of the Middle East and lead to the resolution of other conflicts.