What Kind of Peace?

March 1, 1991 Topic: Security Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Cold WarGulf War

What Kind of Peace?

Mini Teaser: There are two main reasons for believing that the U.

by Author(s): Daniel Pipes

There are two main reasons for believing that the U.S. government will find it hard to translate military superiority over Iraq into a lasting political victory.

First, traditional American instincts in time of war militate against the delineation of a long-term strategy.  Americans see war not as a continuation of diplomacy, but as its replacement.  We tend to believe that war should be used only as a last resort.  (For the same reason, American generals and admirals have often preferred to have nothing to do with policy issues, believing that they have no role during time of war.)  We have a tradition of wanting total war, regardless of political considerations.  Moreover, our leaders often let emotions hold sway, with expensive consequences.  It was gratifying in World War II to impose unconditional surrender on the Germans, then to learn that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.  But this indulgence extended the war, cost innumerable lives, and permitted the Soviets to grab Eastern Europe.

The second reason for concern about American planning regards the specifics of the war with Iraq.  The build-up to the war included little thinking about long-term goals.  By all accounts, the hurly-burly of managing the Gulf Crisis--formulating a response, building a coalition, holding it together, exploring diplomatic options, devising a war plan, and winning domestic support--prevented the president and his advisers from thinking much about the aims of the enterprise.

This vacuum became embarrassingly evident when President Bush addressed the country just two hours after launching the war.  Speaking to the largest American audience in television history, he used the occasion only to go over very familiar territory, justifying the administration's actions and explaining why war was necessary.  He did not deal with such matters as defining U.S. goals or the circumstances in which American troops would be brought home.  At a news conference on January 19, the president further revealed the vagueness of his thinking.  Asked what he hoped the war would accomplish, he replied: "When this is all over we want to be the healers, we want to do what we can to facilitate what I might optimistically call a new world order."  This alarming statement, heavy with mystical and even New Age overtones, seemed to confirm an absence of serious political and military analysis.

When the administration finally got around to articulating its goals, the results remained too vague to be operational.  On February 5, Secretary of State Baker offered five desiderata for the Middle East--a new security arrangement, an arms-control agreement, a program of economic reconstruction, a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a reduction of American dependence on Persian Gulf oil--but he offered no specifics and, like Bush, indulged in pie-in-the-sky talk of achieving "real reconciliation based on enduring respect, tolerance and mutual trust" between the Arabs and Israel.(1)

Outsiders offered variant lists of U.S. goals.  Marvin Feuerwerger of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published six points of an "essential framework" to win the peace; Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana presented a seven-point "agenda" to achieve stability in the Middle East; and so forth.  But none of these lists answered the two basic questions: How can the war against Iraq best be made to serve American national interests?  And what military strategy best advances those interests?

The overriding American interest in the Persian Gulf is to achieve stability.  The factors which prompted the U.S. engagement--the threat to oil, the build-up of nonconventional offensive capabilities, the unacceptable precedent, the humanitarian catastrophe--point to the need for quiet and security.  Once stability is achieved, other desirable goals like low oil prices, a more equitable sharing of the petro-wealth, and democratic elections can be addressed.

Translated into specifics, stability implies the territorial integrity of Iraq; as stable and non-bellicose a government in Baghdad as possible; a balance between Iraqi and Iranian power, thereby preventing either from gaining regional hegemony; the al-Sabah dynasty's return to Kuwait; and the future security of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the other per-capita income giants.

How can the war that began in mid-January lead to stability?  The allies' overwhelming military superiority offers a choice from an unusually wide range of options; picking the right one is not easy.  The liberation of Kuwait goes without saying, but what next?  Merely reduce Iraq's offensive threat (the huge army and the Republican Guard)?  Destroy the nonconventional capabilities (the chemical weapons and missiles, the biological and nuclear facilities)?  Topple Saddam Hussein?  Eliminate the Ba'ath regime?  Establish a democratic government?  Occupy Iraq?  Divide the country among its neighbors?

The American instinct, honed by over fifty years' experience, is to go for total war, total victory, and military occupation.  (This explains why official American thinking often portrayed an orderly Iraqi retreat from Kuwait as a "nightmare scenario.")  Occupation entails a complete overhaul of the defeated country's institutions, with American forces staying on until a new leadership has been fostered.  To guarantee the defeated country's security, a military alliance is formed with the United States.  Germany and Japan underwent this process on the grandest scale; more recently and more modestly, it was the turn of Grenada and Panama.  The familiarity and past successes of the total-victory-and-occupation model make it popular; Time reported on February 4 that 72 percent of Americans sought an unconditional Iraqi surrender, while 92 percent insisted on Saddam's removal from power.  President Bush's semi-explicit goals--unconditional surrender, Saddam's ouster, and the formation of a new government--also pointed to this model.

How would total victory fare in Iraq?

Here we leave the lofty heights of strategic planning and confront the hard realities of Persian Gulf politics.  The harsh truth is that an American military occupation of Iraq lasting for more than some months would probably lead to one of the great disasters in American foreign policy.

This dire prediction is prompted by a sense of the region's political culture, especially the attitudes fostered by Islam.  Much has been said about Islam's impact on politics and how this shapes attitudes toward American soldiers in the Gulf, but for our purposes three quick points are worth making.  First, Islam emphasizes a world divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, with other considerations (language, geography, skin color) being far less important.  Second, the law of Islam requires Muslim self-rule; when non-believers have sovereignty over believers, Muslims usually find the situation intolerable and instability results.  Finally, Middle Eastern Muslims have exceptionally acute sensitivities about Muslim rulers serving as the agents of Western powers; indeed, the puppeteer's strings are commonly discerned where they do not exist.

For these and other reasons, the Iraqi populace can be counted on to resent a predominantly American occupying force.  Occupying troops would find themselves victimized by suicide attackers, car bombers, and other acts of terror; the scene in Iraq would recall, on a much grander scale, the depredations suffered by the multinational forces in Lebanon during 1983-84.  The Syrian and Iranian governments would actively sabotage the foreign presence (again, as they did in Lebanon).  The populations of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would probably force their governments to turn against their non-Muslim allies.  As the ignominy of sniper fire buried the prestige of high-tech military superiority, the famous victory achieved by Tomahawks, Tornadoes, and Patriots would quickly become a dim memory.  The brilliant General Schwarzkopf would turn into a humiliated Schwarzkopf Pasha.

Were large numbers of U.S. troops to remain in Saudi Arabia, results would be nearly as bad.  Even though President Bush seems to have ruled this out ("U.S. forces will leave as soon as their mission is over"), the temptation remains.  When Secretary Baker first spoke of a "security structure" for the Persian Gulf, it sounded like another attempt at a Middle Eastern NATO.  This has been tried before (Eisenhower's Baghdad Pact, Reagan's "strategic consensus") and it has always failed.  As Henry Kissinger correctly noted in congressional testimony in November 1990, the contrast with Western Europe and South Korea, where American troops have been stationed for forty years, is profound: "There, American forces contributed to domestic stability; in Saudi Arabia they would threaten it."

The phobia about non-Muslim forces makes the Middle East fundamentally different from other foreign regions in which the United States has fought large-scale wars; it presents the greatest single obstacle to American efforts to stabilize the region.  These considerations lead me to conclude that the first imperative of U.S. strategy is not to keep large numbers of American ground troops for long periods in the Persian Gulf region.  There must be no American occupation of Iraq, no NATO-like alliance with the Saudis and Kuwaitis, no permanent military bases in their countries.

[2ldc]This said, Muslim antagonism toward non-Muslim powers is far from absolute.  Turkey has been a staunch member of NATO for forty years, while a network of discreet alliances tie Muslims from Morocco and Indonesia to Washington.  However strong the elemental Islamic antagonism, countervailing influences also exist, and need to be taken into account.  Cultural proclivities have their limits as indicators of political behavior; ideologies count too, as do interests.  In addition, several other factors are currently important in the Persian Gulf region.

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