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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 only place where cheap colonial air power ever succeeded in subduing an indigenous foe was, in fact, Iraq.
If the blockade does make Saddam Hussein disgorge Kuwait, it will be because we have held together an illassorted and mutually suspicious alliance, the “international community.” From World War, II until quite recently we were not so much members of an alliance as its hegemon; the Kuwaiti affair may have produced our first authentic alliance, with all its attendant miseries. With the partial exception of NATO we have never in our history been a long-term member of a genuine alliance; we have always felt ourselves too weak, too strong, or too isolated. In the early years of the Republic, indeed for quite a while, except during the War of 1812, we made brave noises and sheltered behind the Royal Navy, which put what teeth there were into the Monroe Doctrine.
Given the staggering costs and potential agonies necessitated by most balances of power, we have been a peculiarly fortunate people. For most of our national history we have faced at close hand only the military dangers posed by Mexico, Canada, and the Plains tribes. During the Cold War we were effectively the only military power on our side of the line; the graceless but at that time accurate neologism superpower was coined for a good reason. We will need to learn a new thing in a genuinely multipolar world.
If a grand alliance really does shoehorn the Iraqis out of Kuwait, there’s a chance that the relevant parties—the weak Gulf states, Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States—may decide that the stability of the industrial world’s economy depends on a permanent commitment, a new oilsupply-driven equivalent of NATO. But it is an outside chance; such an alliance is incompatible with Pan-Arabist political sentiment and possibly with the effective functioning of OPEC in any recognizable form. If we do make such an arrangement in the Gulf, it will lack the shared history and political culture that may have made NATO work. The political reality of Pan-Arabism is a consequence of a strikingly different way from ours of looking at the history of this century.
It is already proverbial to acknowledge that to many Arabs the conflict looks like the pauperized and resentful Arab populations versus American-sustained and oil-bloated feudal regimes; this seems to be the way it looks to Jordan and the Sudan, on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, and the Algerians may yet show some tendencies in this direction. Most Arab regimes are plagued by legitimacy crises, and Saddam Hussein is the beneficiary of almost every one of these. An effective blockade and embargo are extremely vulnerable to one striking consequence of this: the frailty of Saudi nerve. Any ructions from below will rattle the Saudis badly, and they’re likely to pose impossible conditions or at least ones that vastly complicate American military effectiveness; they may simply boot us out.
This leads to one of the more subtly depressing lessons of Vietnam. In Vietnam we persistently misunderstood South Vietnamese political constraints on the military form of technical rationality. Military technical rationality, for example, might suggest committing reserves to an engagement when South Vietnamese political constraints dictated the preservation of an existing balance of power within a factionalized and coup-prone corps of general officers, and politics generally won. In other words, politics paralyzed the army. These effects exist within our own military, of course; the service rivalries that have led to peculiar divisions of responsibility are thought to have hindered most American military operations since the Korean War, engendered sometimes ludicrous procurement policies, and produced inefficient force structures. All these phenomena are widely acknowledged to be the product of the triumph of institutional politics over military rationality.
Our operations in the Gulf so far seem remarkably free of this. Yet the potential is certainly there. Pan-Arabism, Saudi anxieties, inter-European Economic Community divisions, Soviet ambivalences, Japanese timidity and indecisiveness, Chinese prickliness—the tensions between military rationality and so many different political necessities threaten to yield some magnificent military irrationalities. The hopelessness of Iraq’s inferiority—in mat»riel if not manpower—may not be decisive, set against adversaries potentially hopelessly at odds with one another.
The most useful lesson of Vietnam may be that the political and military realms thoroughly penetrate each other. The Kuwaitis who trusted to politics alone to preserve their sovereignty were as deluded as the cheerful fellows who assume that our superabundance of military power will necessarily prevail. Then again, it is now Saddam Hussein who is depending on politics to save him from the realities of military power; with luck, he will be as bitterly disappointed as his victims of early August were.