For the New Year, there are no resolutions but many questions, all of them about the Persian Gulf.
The most important question, not yet adequately addressed by President Bush is: What happens after we win?
First, accept the premise that the war is over. Overwhelming U.S. might has prevailed. Put aside, for the moment, the extent of casualties and the inevitable destruction that will have ensued. That both will be extensive is virtually certain. Next, envision the scene in the aftermath of combat. The American flag flies over Baghdad, which is occupied by victorious American troops. Then what?
The president has said some form of Persian Gulf peace-keeping force would be needed, even if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein totally withdraws his forces from Kuwait, thereby precluding actual combat. Bush suggested that this interim force need not be solely, or primarily, American. An international force, drawn from the coalition created through the guiding hand of the United States, can be formed to ensure peace.
This scenario leads to several critical questions. Is it credible, for example, to believe that the tenuous international coalition arrayed against Iraq -- actually an all-American force with minor appendages -- will hold after conflict ends? What reason is there to think that other countries will be willing to post troops on the desert sands for an indeterminate period when they were obviously unwilling to commit significant force earlier?
It seems self-evident that the "police" peace-keeping force will be American and that Americans will be required to remain on the ground to do that job. For how long, at what cost, with what consequences?
Bush has depicted a gulf war as one that, unlike the bloody nightmare of Vietnam that extended for more than a decade, would end rapidly. This view was reinforced recently by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who distinguished himself for valor during World War II infantry combat in Europe. Upon returning from a visit to U.S. forces in the gulf, Inouye declared his belief that a war could be over within five days.
Perhaps he's right; every American surely hopes so, if war occurs. But Inouye's expert judgment aside, it's equally possible that war could be lengthy. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), who also recently returned from an inspection of U.S. forces in the gulf, is not so sanguine about a quick victory. That could happen, he says cautiously, but war could drag on for six months or more.
Mitchell raised another question: What if Saddam fulfills his promise to attack Israel after war begins and Syria then switches sides to support a fellow Arab state, igniting a Mideast holy war?
Yet another question that would sorely test the American psyche deals with casualties. Whatever the battle's duration, heavy loss of life quite likely will occur on both sides. "Fairly brutal" is how the Marine commander on the ground in Saudi Arabia characterized expected casualty rates in a recent interview with a Washington Post correspondent.
Last August, in the early hours of the crisis, some of the initial comments relayed to reporters from inside the Pentagon had a cocky, swaggering tone. "We're going to clean his clock" was one such comment then about Saddam. Along with these came deprecating remarks about the poor quality of Iraqi troops.
U.S. military commanders no longer express such thoughts. Now it is the civilian leaders, from Bush down, who make macho remarks about "kicking ass" and sending Saddam crawling home "with his tail between his legs." By contrast, the professional military sounds increasingly cautious notes of realism.
It is, of course, possible that massive U.S. air and ground attacks would be so devastating that the Iraqis would quickly break and surrender. Or that Saddam, the despot, could be overthrown by his own people. But it's far more realistic to expect the Iraqis to fight tenaciously, as people defending their homelands always have, requiring greater commitment of U.S. ground forces and, inevitably, greater losses on both sides.
Even with military victory accomplished, how does the United States avoid being cast in the Arab world as the hated new colonial power that brought massive carnage for countless civilians? How does it then avoid becoming the target for years, if not decades, of terrorist attacks?
Finally, which makes more sense -- a policy of patience to allow economic sanctions to work, or a rush to war to meet an artificially imposed deadline of America's own making?