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.