George Ball on the Middle East
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the situation seemed urgent. American representatives had shown King Fahd and his Saudi advisers communications intercepts which indicated that Iraq might he intending to continue its predatory sweep to the Saudi oil fields. Since the Saudis by themselves would not be able to stop them, the King reluctantly decided to invite American help. That help was provided, but initially with only a limited objective: to protect Saudi Arabia and avoid what could become a dangerous monopoly of the world’s oil resources.
As the situation evolved in further discussions at the UN Security Council, the objective of intervention was gradually reformulated. No longer was it a question simply of defending the Saudis. The crass lexicon of power politics gave way to a more abstract and thus nobler level of justification: the need now was to halt ‘aggression’ as that term is employed in the United Nations Charter. This new purpose found expression in 12 far-reaching resolutions which the Security Council adopted in the following few weeks. The first confirmed that Iraq’s move against Kuwait had indeed constituted an ‘aggression’ – a finding which made available the enforcement machinery outlined in Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. As a first step in activating that machinery, the Council authorised a trade and financial embargo against Iraq.
Anxious to build emotional support for his policies, the President undertook to demonise Saddam Hussein, while also personalising the conflict to such an extent that it looked like a slanging match between a cartoon figure named Saddam and another named Bush. At the same time Secretary of State Baker, with his instinctive concern for domestic political approval, publicly stated that the purpose of American intervention was simply ‘jobs’.
Mindful of the need to persuade the voters to support the huge troop deployments he apparently already had in mind, the President seemed to feel it essential to generate in them a virulent hatred of the opposition. That effort led many thoughtful Americans to question whether a democracy could ever conduct a limited war. If it was necessary to indulge in hyperbolic denunciations so as to get the people to fight, a leader, carried away by his own rhetoric, might easily end up going far beyond his original objectives in order to justify his vituperation. Sure enough, it soon appeared from what Bush was implying that America dared not content itself with anything other than the death of Saddam Hussein, or at least his removal from power. That inspired a futile and demeaning press discussion as to whether the Government ought to modify its settled policy forbidding the assassination of other nations’ leaders.
Although passionate fulmination is the enemy of legality, it was finally called to the President’s attention that all the Security Council had authorised was the enforcement of its resolutions: for the Council to sanction any action to change the Iraqi leadership would represent interference in internal affairs of a kind firmly excluded by the Charter. At the same time the reaction to the President’s demagogic statements was so adverse that he hastened to restore the case for America’s involvement to a higher plane by reverting to the vital need to halt ‘aggression’.
Despite this new higher tone, the issue of oil continued to intrude in the public discussion. Although oil was something all Americans could understand, its significance as an issue ultimately depended on the prejudices of the individual interpreter. On the one hand, oil gave a grubby reality to America’s decisions; on the other, it detracted from the purity of the American intention.
Questions of motivation apart, the events that led to the war were unambiguous. To enforce the trade and financial embargo, the Bush Administration organised a formidable coalition of both Arab and Western powers. Many hoped – and even assumed – that the President would thereafter try one by one to exhaust the whole list of non-violent measures set out in the United Nations Charter before resorting to military force. They also assumed that when he promised to move the nations to ‘a new world order’ he intended to use the UN machinery to shape his grand design.
Rumblings from the White House soon revealed a shift towards unilateralism. By November, the President began to express doubts that an economic embargo alone would secure full compliance with the Council’s resolutions. Instead, he implied, the Coalition should back its economic enforcement efforts with the threat of military intervention, and his actions made it clear that he considered a visible deployment of military might essential to give credibility to that threat. As soon as the Security Council authorised its members to use ‘all necessary means’ to achieve the enforcement of its resolutions, he ordered a doubling of America’s already huge deployment. This immediately complicated the issue. In the view of military leaders, a deployment of roughly half a million men and women rendered the system of rotating military personnel impracticable. Yet to retain such a huge complement of men and women under desert conditions for the indefinite period required to test the full efficiency of economic sanctions would, they felt, impose too much hardship. Since the feasibility of alternative strategies has now been made moot by the rapid conclusion of the war, that contentious issue can be left for future scholars. Yet victory need not preclude an honestly-faced regret that the experts were denied the chance to test the effectiveness of enforcement measures in a situation almost ideally designed for their use.
Similarly, the fact that the strategy finally adopted largely achieved its purpose should not discourage us from reflecting on the consequences of America’s national impatience, which prevented us from testing the potential of Article 43 of the Charter. This provides for the creation of a true United Nations force flying the blue flag and operating through an international chain of command. By failing to avail ourselves of that provision we created at least the appearance of a Pax Americana, since it was the United States rather than the Security Council which took the key decisions.
Vol. 13 No. 9 · 9 May 1991
From Lawrence Goldman
George Ball sees fit to write and the London Review sees fit to print a piece on the Middle East and its many problems that is largely devoted to an attack on Israel (LRB, 4 April). While most of the rest of us are looking to Iraq and the struggle to topple Saddam, and wrestling with the moral issue of involvement in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, more vividly aware than ever before of the many causes of instability in the Middle East, Mr Ball would have us believe that the crisis in the Gulf points only to the necessity of a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. We have heard it all before, ad nauseam. Mr Ball’s judgments are his own, but he cannot be allowed licence with the facts. Let me take just one example, but an important one since the linkage between Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait was so crucial to the Gulf crisis. I refer to Mr Ball’s account of the 1967 War. Apparently Israel ‘overran’ and ‘seized’ these territories in an aggressive war and should thus (‘no doubt’) return them to the Palestinians. Mr Ball tells us that President Nasser had no intention of going to war against Israel, and his proof for all of this is a stray quotation from that unimpeachable historical source, Menachem Begin.
It is a view, I suppose, and no reasonable account should omit the case as seen from Cairo or Damascus. But where is there mention of attacks by El Fatah across the Israel-Jordan border or of Syrian shelling of Israeli settlements from the Golan Heights in the months before June 1967? Or of the mobilisation of Egyptian forces starting on 14 May 1967 that precipitated an Israeli mobilisation in response? Or of Nasser’s expulsion on 17 May of the UN forces that had been stationed on the Sinai frontier since the Suez crisis? Or of his proclamation on 22 May that the Gulf of Aqaba was closed to Israeli shipping in the face of clear Israeli forewarnings that the reimposition of the Egyptian blockade would be interpreted as an act of war (which, technically, it was)? Or of Nasser’s declaration of 26 May that Egypt intended to destroy Israel? Or of the meeting of 30 May between King Hussein and Nasser at which Jordan formally united her military forces with those of Egypt and Syria? At the time this was all taken to presage a deliberate war of encirclement against Israel. And if the aim was aggression and expansionism, why didn’t the Israelis have any plans in advance for the administration of the territories they ‘seized’? Finally, Mr Ball writes that there is no doubt that the territories captured should be returned to the Palestinians. But if he really means ‘returned’ then surely the lands should go back to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the sovereign states from which they were taken?
I limit my remarks to points raised by five sentences of Mr Ball’s account. A full critique would, on this scale, take rather too much space. The biographical information about Mr Ball printed on page 2 of the LRB reminds us that he was US Under-Secretary of State between 1961 and 1966. Although critical of aspects of American policy in Vietnam, and finally aware that the conflict could not be won, he was an important member of American administrations responsible for the unsuccessful prosecution of a truly unjust war in that country. Some might wonder if political participation in the Vietnam War gives an individual any right to lecture others on international law and morality.
St Peter’s College, Oxford
From Norman Langford
Mr George Ball’s survey of the Middle East is a curious text, coming as it does at a moment when Iraq’s treatment of its Kurds has, almost for the first time (the Western press having in the past displayed a prudent unconcern), been brought inescapably to the public notice. With very little extra effort and loss of life – had President Bush not lost his nerve – the Allies could have created an autonomous Kurdistan which could not possibly have offered a threat to the rest of Iraq or, for that matter, to Turkey. For reasons which have nothing to do with altruism, and a lot to do with maintaining the balance of power (‘regional stability’), they decided not to do so. And perhaps to disguise the fact that neither Washington not London is going to do anything for the Kurds (or Tibetans, or any other inconvenient minority), strong support is expressed, on the highest moral grounds, for the creation of an independent Palestinian Arab state for the benefit of a minority far less numerous than the Kurds and with very much less to complain of.
Vol. 13 No. 12 · 27 June 1991
From K. Sinclair-Loutit
Lawrence Goldman’s span of appreciation is too short to support the generalisations he advances in his letter (9 May) concerning Israelis and Palestinians. The life of Israel as a state is shorter than my own and maybe also that of Mr Goldman, so we might as well use all the facts that we both know. In determining rights of tenure it is reasonable to examine the initial status of those claiming rights and to compare this status with their present position.
Today three million Jews inside the State of Israel control the lives of four million Muslims, most of whom are outside Israel in territories under military occupation. The rights and manner of life conceded by the government of Israel to these groupings are not identical to that offered to their own people. The reversal within a life-span of the demographic and cultural character of a large inhabited territory cannot be other than violent; when it is attempted by brute force it does not succeed, as all surviving Jews from Eastern Europe can bear witness. Mr Goldman, were he to be translated by magic carpet from his present Oxford address to a comparable Islamic institution within the occupied territories, would have been constrained by his intelligence and his conscience to have written you a very different letter. Here in Morocco, where the leaders of the three great religions pray that the children of Abraham shall become as one, we can see the Palestine question in all the perspectives which somehow seem to be denied to the tunnel vision demonstrated in Mr Goldman’s letter.