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What Does History Have To Say About The Persian Gulf?
What the past tells of America’s role in the current crisis is sometimes contradictory—but always worth listening to
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
The political task of organizing a unified response to Iraqi aggression has been amazingly effective, compared with the failures of the Reagan administration in organizing a response to exasperating Middle Eastern or Central American regimes. The logical response to Iraqi aggression was discovered to be collective security, everybody’s favorite retrospective choice over the appeasement of the thirties. The result is the blockade of and embargo upon Iraq, a perfect example of what the League of Nations should have done all through the thirties and never managed.
If the embargo and blockade work, great; there are reasons to think they may not. Mussolini was embargoed over his Abyssinian War, the Japanese over their depredations in China in the 1930s, both Spanish belligerents were variously embargoed from 1936 to 1939, and de Gaulle, then Israel’s chief military supplier, embargoed his client after the Six Days’ War in 1967. Rhodesia and for that matter South Africa were the subject of embargoes, oil embargoes at that. Cuba, almost absolutely dependent on U.S. trade in 1959, has been embargoed by us ever since, and we have had a long-term policy of keeping strategic military technology out of Soviet hands and nuclear and chemical- and biological-warfare capabilities out of practically everybody’s.
Mussolini managed to get his oil, as did Franco, and the Spanish republic found another patron—and became disastrously hostage to that patron’s political strategies—in the alliance with Stalin. The Japanese eventually responded to the embargoes, if not precisely in the fashion anticipated, at Pearl Harbor. Rhodesia and South Africa were (and are) swimming in imported oil; the Israelis found another supplier after the French ditched them; the Iraqis, along with some others, managed to procure nuclear-weapons technology, ballistic-missile technology, and, infamously, mustard and nerve gases. The Soviets, the Chinese, and the South Africans have been able to acquire most of the militarily sensitive technology they’ve cared to pay hard currency for, and Castro has so far managed to hang on for thirty-one years. Sooner or later, people tend to cheat on embargoes.
Greediness, neediness, misplaced loyalty, and fear make embargoes and blockades leak. American petroleum companies sold oil to Franco on credit, and the depression-battered Eastern European states allowed themselves to be swindled out of raw materials by Hitler because in a glutted market an unsavory and dishonest buyer is better than none. Having invaded his neighbor, Saddam Hussein got weapons from France and from the Brazilians and from the Chinese on credit, up to and including ballistic missiles, because Iranian behavior had so outraged the Western states that it had occluded the character of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Stalin shipped Hitler war mat»riel up to the day of the invasion of the Soviet Union, long after it was obvious that Germany was planning war, because Stalin had supped with the devil without a long enough spoon; he was desperate to put off the evil hour. The Saudis and Kuwaitis tried for years to buy off Saddam Hussein, keeping him alive until he was ready to devour them.
Food shortages are the great hope of the Iraqi blockade. Food is the only vital pressure point, and people who trade in it will do well, while persuading themselves that they are doing good. But we should remember that food shortages failed to move the British to surrender in either world war. Britain was a parliamentary democracy, and a great deal more vulnerable to such pressures; right now the Iraqi political community has a population of one, and many people will starve before Saddam Hussein is reduced to scraping the last of the marmite onto a dry crust.
For the first time since our invasion of Mexico in 1847, we have considered fighting a war we are prepared for.
Unless Saddam Hussein decides to cut and run, the blockade and embargo will work slowly. The Air Force chief of staff Michael J. Dugan promised a far quicker solution in the revelations that cost him his job: bomb Baghdad and “decapitate” the Iraqi high command.
But in fact, aerial bombardment, if we reach that point, may also be slow to produce useful effects. We may aim at Saddam Hussein and miss him; we seem to have been aiming at Colonel Qaddafi in the 1986 Libyan raid. A near miss does not necessarily moderate a dictator’s ambitions. Qaddafi may have pulled in his horns a bit, but Col. Claus von Stauffenberg’s very near miss in his 1944 bomb plot had the opposite effect on Hitler.
In contemplating the possibility of reducing Baghdad by heavy bombing, we came upon historical parallels that are legion—and disconcerting. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam conspicuously illustrate our Air Force’s enthusiasm for strategic bombardment, and World War II also saw first the Luftwaffe’s and then the RAF’s attempts to break an enemy’s will by what was in effect state terrorism.