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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / February 19, 1998 / 23 Shevat, 5758

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell A "Do Something" War?

NOTHING IS EASIER than getting into a war. Getting out can be a lot harder. Vietnam should have taught us that -- and the lesson should not need repeating.

President Clinton's speech in the Pentagon, attempting to explain what our purpose is in attacking Iraq, was long on platitudes and elaborations of the obvious, but very short on the real question -- just what result will cause us to stop the war and go home? He totally ignored the most ominous question of all: What if this widens into a bigger war, involving more countries?

Iraq tried to widen the Gulf War of 1991 by firing missiles into Israel, which had nothing to do with that war, but whose retaliation might have brought in other Arab nations or even the Russians. Israel held off retaliating, but we cannot count on such restraint again, especially if Iraqi missiles with chemical or biological warheads start landing in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

If Israeli retaliation brings in Arab nations, Russians may not be far behind. Russian leaders have already warned us that a Middle East war could escalate into World War III. Maybe they are just bluffing. But maybe they are not.

The Russians need not declare war. They can always send in "volunteers" with sophisticated equipment to counter American high-tech military power and we would be faced with a wholly different situation from a replay of the 1991 Gulf War.

We have been kidding ourselves for too long that Russia is no longer a superpower. Any nation with enough nuclear missiles to wipe American cities off the map is not chopped liver.

If nothing else, the openly expressed belligerence of Russian leaders shows that there are political brownie points to be won in Russia by taking a stand against the United States. If Boris Yeltsin, whom we have helped, is willing to inject himself into a Middle East issue like this, what about more strident Russian nationalists who are waiting in the wings for Yeltsin's political or personal demise?

It might well be foolish for the Russians to follow up their threats with military action in the Middle East or elsewhere. But many wars have been ignited or escalated by foolish actions.

Incidentally, how wise are we to extend NATO into Russia's backyard in Eastern Europe, when they are already talking tough about something happening farther away and among people with whom they have had no historic ties? Eastern Europe and the Balkans have some of the most turbulent histories of any regions in the world -- and Russians have intervened militarily there under both the czars and the Communists.

Extending NATO into Russia's backyard is a high-risk and low-yield policy, which may have something to do with Russia's belligerent response toward American military action in Iraq.

Wars should never be begun with the rosy assumption that everything will go according to plan. Nor should we start a war because we just have to "do something" about somebody we detest. Saddam Hussein is certainly rotten but are we prepared to start bombing every rotten despot? Are we even prepared to start bombing every country with weapons of mass destruction?

Bill Clinton has failed to tell us what his "exit strategy" is. When will we stop the war and go home? When Saddam Hussein agrees to unlimited U.N. inspection? What if he never agrees? Will we keep bombing the Iraqis forever?

Saddam Hussein doesn't care how many Iraqis we kill. But the American public will, especially when the dead Iraqi women and children are televised in Baghdad and brought into every American home at dinner time. Add to that the dead Americans coming home in body bags and you do not have the conditions needed for lasting public support for extended military action.

In the 1991 Gulf War, we had clear objectives and the ability to win those objectives in short order. The objective was to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and destroy its equipment. When that was done, we could declare victory and go home.

The Clinton administration shows its usual pattern of playing everything politically by ear on a day-to-day basis. But, in war, such short-sightedness has often been the road to long-run tragedy.

If nothing else, the current Middle East crisis has shown how little we can count on most of our "allies" when the chips are down. Why are we acquiring more such allies on the Russian borders, where they may be more dangerous to us than to the Russians, if we allow ourselves to get dragged into their centuries-old hostilities?


2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.