It is now fashionably cynical to say that the only reason the United States is in the Persian Gulf is oil. Oil is, of course, a major reason. But it is not the only one. If Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had voluntarily decided to join Iraq in a supply-restricting, price-gouging adventure -- if oil, its price and supply were the only value at stake -- the United States would hardly have responded by sending troops in the tens of thousands.
Indeed that scenario, the voluntary ganging up of the oil states on the West, is what happened during the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. The only thing then at stake was oil. There were, at the time, voices urging American military action. They were ignored.
Today there is another value at stake in the Gulf. It is even more important than oil. It is world order.
We are living an extraordinary moment. With the abdication of Soviet power, the world has been transformed from a bipolar into a unipolar one. The United States and the alliance it leads have unprecedented control of the international order -- an order whose benignity and humanity have been testified to yet again by the rush of the newly liberated peoples of Eastern Europe to join it.
Saddam's Iraq presents a challenge to that order as direct as Nazi Germany's to the order of the 1930s. If he is permitted the unprovoked conquest and plunder of a defenseless neighbor, then the post-Cold War peace that has just dawned dissolves into chaos. Only this time, the nightmare will be worse and even more universal. It will be the nightmare not just of indiscriminate aggression but of indiscriminate aggression with missiles, poison gas and soon nuclear weapons.
The stakes are high because this is the first test of the new unipolar system presided over by the West. And first tests establish ground rules. If Saddam gets away with swallowing Kuwait, it will be clear that this is a world with no rules and no one in charge. Not only will he be back for more, but every tyrant with ambition and an army will get the message that everything goes. And every potential victim will get the message that it must either arm itself to the teeth or, like King Hussein of Jordan, buy protection by siding with the regional thug of the day.
Because the stakes are so high, the United States has to be clear about its objectives in the Gulf. And because the stakes are not just oil, the objective has to be more than just the protection and preservation of Saudi Arabia from Iraq. We have three other important goals:
1. The unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait with the restoration to power of the emir.
2. The removal from power of Saddam Hussein.
3. The elimination of Iraq's capacity for mass murder.
This last objective -- the destruction of Iraq's unconventional capacities: its chemical-weapons factories, long-range missiles and nuclear-weapons facilities -- can only be achieved if Iraq is unwise enough to provoke a shooting war with the United States. In which case, purely as a matter of self-defense, this should be our first objective.
In the absence of war, the United States must settle for nothing less than Saddam's unconditional surrender of Kuwait and his downfall. These two objectives are linked. The one will lead to the other. Saddam has staked so much on his Kuwaiti adventure that a forced, unconditional withdrawal would be more humiliation than his rule could endure.
That is, if the blockade does not topple him first. Hungry people have a way of replacing their leaders. Saddam is not a madman. He is a cold and calculating thug who has this time miscalculated. Before starvation sets in, he will seek some face-saving compromise.
Any compromise, any negotiation, any face-saving formula for getting Saddam out of Kuwait would be a grave error for the United States. There has, for example, been loose talk about a post-withdrawal referendum in Kuwait on the emir's rule. One doesn't call a referendum by means of invasion. If the emir wants to call one someday, fine. Saddam should not be permitted to force him to. Saddam should be granted no say in Kuwaiti affairs, no territorial or financial concessions, nothing that saves face.
To save Saddam's face is to save Saddam. It would be an astonishing misreading of our interests, and those of a stable world order, to save an adventurer who, if he makes it through this crisis, will undoubtedly be back, next time with nuclear weapons.
We don't want to save Saddam's face. We want to humiliate him. The notions of shame and honor carry extraordinary weight in Arab culture. Saddam's own post-invasion rhetoric overflows with the most lurid talk of shame and honor (protecting the Arab woman from defilement by the infidel, for example).
Which is why we don't need secret agents or assassination plots to get rid of Saddam. We need only deny him an honorable retreat. He will not last long if he returns from little Kuwait to nothing but grieving widows, an empty treasury and shame.