Scylla and Charybdis


As millions of refugees flee from Saddam Hussein's forces, calls have already gone out for George Bush to resume military action against Iraq. Ironically, one of the strongest demands have been from legislators who originally opposed war against Saddam.

But for some of us who had doubts about the wisdom of George Bush's war against Iraq, the aftermath of the war has only deepened our ambivalence.

The Wall Street Journal stated the case for resuming military action when it wrote that "George Bush's early instincts were right—Saddam is indeed 'another Hitler.'…Any post-war order in the Middle East cannot be sustained with a Baathist regime at its center."

Granted, Saddam is thoroughly evil. The Kurds and Kuwaitis will testify to that. Television footage of the hundreds of oil wells left burning in Kuwait confirms that the Iraqis turned the Middle East into hell on earth, with Saddam as its Satan.

But what exactly did the war against Iraq accomplish? True, we saved the Kuwaitis from Saddam. But we allowed the emir of Kuwait, a more likable thug than Saddam but still a thug, to regain his throne. (And only after American forces had replaced the gold fixtures in his palaces.) The Kuwaitis are no longer tortured by Iraqis. But those who dare demand democracy are reportedly harassed by allies of the emir. And summary executions of people suspected of collaborating with the Iraqis are commonplace.

We prevented Saddam from using Kuwaiti oil money to fuel his military machine. He can no longer threaten to invade other neighbors. But the millions of refugees he has forced into Turkey and Iran are themselves dangerously destabilizing the region.

So maybe, as some suggest, we just stopped too soon. We should have gone on to Baghdad and overthrown Saddam. But then what? Would we set up an occupation government? For how long? Would the government we would eventually leave behind command the respect of its people or its neighbors? Would the Kurds be satisfied as part of a democratic Iraq, or would they want their own homeland? And would the Kurds in Turkey then want to join their brothers?

I don't know the answers. Neither does anyone else. The Middle East consistently confounds the "experts."

It is a cliché to note that for 5,000 years the people of the Middle East have warred with one another. The same is true of any region. But since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire the Middle East has been especially—and violently—divided by religion, ethnic identity, language, class, and nationality. It won't soon become an orderly place no matter what the United States does.

Friends who backed the war tell me that its biggest benefits are unseen. They say that it was rather like the allies stopping Hitler in the Sudetenland rather than waiting and enduring the bloodshed of World War II. Perhaps we did stop Saddam before he could become a bigger threat, though it's possible that other regional powers might have attacked Saddam if the United States hadn't. My friends also tell me that we have warned future dictators not to invade other countries. More likely, we have just warned them to be more careful about whom and how they invade.

The only thing that seems certain is that America faces another difficult choice: We can abandon the Kurds and wash our hands of a situation that we helped create. Or we can remain in the Middle East to correct things and perhaps become trapped in a quagmire from which we won't easily escape. Either way, our victory doesn't seem as quick and simple now as it did in early March.