Saddam Hussein is the sort of genuine villain who can—momentarily, at least—transform George Bush into Clint Eastwood. After declaring that the occupation of Kuwait "will not stand," Bush dispatched troops and aircraft to the Persian Gulf and announced that "a line has been drawn in the sand" at the Saudi border. You tell him, George!
For the time being, most of America is sticking with that visceral response. But some observers, unswayed by the arguments for the boycott of Iraq and the deployment of forces in Saudi Arabia, refuse to root for the good guys. We should be thankful for such party poopers. In an environment of virtual unanimity at home and multilateral agreement abroad, they provoke supporters of U.S. policy to clarify the reasons for intervention.
Clearly, helping the Kuwaitis is not one of them. Although the native-born citizens of the emirate were certainly better off under the al-Sabah family than under Hussein, the United States neither would nor should risk war merely to prevent a brutal dictatorship from replacing a benign one.
Nor is the principle of sovereignty in itself an adequate justification. When Libya invades Chad, the violation of territorial integrity is barely worthy of comment, let alone sanctions or military action. Syria's occupation of Lebanon is virtually forgotten: News reports routinely refer to Hussein's adventure as the first invasion of one Arab state by another in modern times. So the indignation about Iraq's "naked aggression" has a somewhat hollow ring.
Yet it's equally simplistic, as well as dangerous, to reduce the confrontation with Iraq to a conflict over "American interests." If U.S. foreign policy is to have any moral basis at all, "interests" alone cannot justify intervention. Hussein, after all, acted in what he perceived to be Iraq's interests.
The presence of oil helps explain why the United States responded differently in the case of Kuwait than in the case of Chad or Lebanon, but it is not an all-purpose pretext for meddling. If the Persian Gulf nations had simply decided to stop selling oil to the United States, the economic threat would have been even greater than that represented by the Iraqi invasion. Yet a military response to such a development would be morally indefensible.
The owners of the oil properly decide who may purchase it and on what terms; neither Iraq nor the United States has a right to control such decisions. True, the picture is complicated by the fact that the ostensible owners may not have acquired all their property through legitimate means. Kuwait, for example, nationalized most of the country's oil production in 1974. But generally speaking, the resources and capital of the Persian Gulf states belong to their rulers, their citizens, or foreign businesses.
Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and his threats against Saudi Arabia therefore represent acts of theft and extortion. You might say that he has violated "international law," but that phrase has little meaning in the absence of an enforcement authority. It's closer to the truth to say that nations exist in a state of nature with respect to each other. As an aggressor against other nations (in addition to an oppressor of his own people), Hussein has placed himself outside the moral community. Consequently, he may rightfully be restrained by military force or punished by a blockade of oil shipments.
It does not follow, however, that the U.S. government may use its citizens' resources to do so. Aggression is a necessary but not sufficient condition for intervention. Otherwise, the United States would be rescuing every country threatened by invasion and supporting every insurgency against a dictatorship. The purpose of the U.S. government is to defend the rights of Americans, not of Kuwaitis and Saudis.
But until every state respects individual liberty, the United States must take an interest in protecting the rights of its citizens abroad as well as at home. For practical reasons, that commitment cannot be open-ended. Furthermore, those who knowingly remain in dangerous places, such as Lebanon in recent years, deserve less consideration than those, like the 3,000 Americans in Kuwait, who are taken by surprise.
In every instance where the rights of Americans are threatened, the government must weigh the costs and benefits of intervention, including the long-term impact on the security of its citizens. It must also consider the risks of failing to act. Hussein has violated the rights of Americans by kidnapping them, holding them captive, and disrupting their business arrangements. Had he invaded Saudi Arabia, he would have further restricted the freedom of Americans to travel and engage in voluntary market transactions. Whether or not his ultimate aim is to raise the price of oil, he has generated tremendous uncertainty in world markets.
Free trade is impossible without an international environment that approximates the rule of law. Because of the free-rider problem inherent in the effort to preserve that environment, the burden falls disproportionately on the United States. Some argue that if the United States did not act, Japan and the European nations would pick up the slack. It's possible, however, that they would follow similar reasoning, leaving a dangerous vacuum.
In any case, the multinational response to the Iraqi invasion demonstrates that assistance can be obtained through a combination of moral suasion and threats of nonaction. But the fact that U.S. efforts benefit other countries should not deter the government from exercising its legitimate function. Rights do not stop at the border, and neither should efforts to protect them.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Engulfed".