IMAGINE BAGHDAD in August of 1992.
Only two years after invading Kuwait, our old acquaintance Saddam Hussein (looking healthy and heavily re-armed by the French and the Chinese) has just welcomed his fellow Arab leaders--including the Emir of Kuwait and the King of Saudi Arabia--to the Arab League summit. Cordiality and warm embraces have replaced the fighting words of the "Kuwait incident," and the failure of the West to make progress on the Palestinian issue has reunited the Arabs in their hatred of the "Zionist occupying entity," Israel, and its allies in Europe and North America.
A young Iraqi Shi'ite walks up to you in the Yard and asks how you feel about the Gulf War. Once reminded of what he is talking about, you look back at the events of the winter of 1991 and begin to sense a growing uneasiness about the whole damn affair.
You begin to recall the postwar revelation of the utter destruction of Iraq's cities and the deaths of 100,000 to 150,000 young men. You are chilled by the language used in the U.N. report describing the results of allied bombing: "near-apocalyptic" destruction of urban Iraq; the reduction of the country's infrastructure to a "pre-industrial" level.
Before answering him you remind yourself of the rational and reasonable arguments for going to war. Kuwait had to liberated; Saddam had to be stopped; aggression could not be rewarded and Western interests (oil, bases, etc.) had to be secured and placed well outside the reach of one of those "mad Muslims."
In the last seconds of the embarrassingly long pause between his question and your answer, you measure the 'just' motives of the allied venture against the reality of the post-war Gulf, realize that little was achieved beyond placing Kuwait back in the hands of its emir, and words begin to fail you.
I ADMIT that this scenario is my version of a "nightmare scenario" (remember the State Department's version: a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait). There is a (however dwindling) possibility that Saddam Hussein will be overthrown. There is hope that the Arab world will come to terms with the reality of Israel, accept its existence and thereby convince the Israelis to trade occupied land for peace with the Palestinians. And there is hope that the Arab societies will allow for greater freedom and greater responsibility on the part of their people, providing them with a more just and humane existence.
Today, however, things are looking grim. Saddam Hussein's forces have crushed most of the Shi'ite and Kurdish bellions with brutal force (including, of course, chemical weapons, at the cost of thousands of lives). Once solidly restored to his former control, it would be naive to expect Saddam to refrain from purchasing arms, and more than naive to think it impossible because of some "embargo" which everyone knows won't last.
We will then have to face the grim reality of having conducted an enormous war at the price of over $50 billion with the result of destroying an entire country's infrastructure and depriving its citizens of the most basic living conditions. We will have the lives of 100,000 to 150,000 young men on our consciences, not to mention the tens of thousands maimed and wounded, and the terror inflicted upon the women and children through weeks of relentless bombing. All this for the sake of Kuwait and its emir!
None of our other main objectives will have been accomplished. Saddam Hussein will still be in power, oil prices will still be subject to the will of OPEC, and that alleged principle of not rewarding aggression--well, we all know how consistently it will be upheld in the future. My argument, however, is that an Iraq freed from the reign of Saddam Hussein can, if not totally justify our actions, at least salvage some of our principles and maybe even allow a sense of pride.
OVER SPRING BREAK in London, a friend of mine met an Iraqi student (a Shi'ite from the holy city of Karbala) who described watching the secret police take his parents away in the middle of the night. They were kept imprisoned for years, during which he didn't know whether they were dead or alive.
After recounting his suffering, the Iraqi asked, "Now that you have destroyed my country's cities, bridges and industrial plants; now that you have killed many of my countrymen, most of whom were retreating when they met their death, and who only fought under the threat of losing their families, how can you leave without removing the man who was responsible for it all? How can you leave us and the Kurds to a repression unparalleled in our history? How can you leave us when we need you most?"
What could I say to this question, except apologize for the thousands of unnecessary bombs and bullets. Apologize for not adhering to the very principles upon which we had justified this intervention. Apologize for our hypocrisy in asserting that we can't meddle in Iraq's internal affairs (in fact, the first truly democratic movement in many years in the Arab world) when we could commit 500,000 troops to returning the emir of Kuwait to his palace.
As I parted from him, I expressed my hope that the allies still might help the Iraqi people in what is truly a genuine struggle or freedom, or that they might succeed on their own. Yet as this outcome grows increasingly unlikely, I am left with the painful realization that after all the suffering and enormous loss of life, Saddam Hussein will still appear on my TV a year from now.