Well, not quite. Airplanes can fly long distances, but to provide anything remotely like continuous coverage they had better fly from quite close to their targets or patrol areas. Range is not the issue; the ratio of time in-area versus transit time is. The longer the transit time, the more airplanes are needed to keep a few more or less continuously in place.
The surprise was that a rather expensive set of bases built in Saudi Arabia was not fully available when the U.S. government suddenly wanted to use it. The Saudis did not, apparently, feel that they wanted to be defended. Neither did the Kuwaitis, who, by rather recent experience, should have taken a developing Iraqi threat seriously. The Air Force did deploy more aircraft to the Gulf area, but this time it seemed unlikely that its aircraft could be used freely.
Ships are a different proposition. They are U.S. territory. When the United States wants to act unilaterally, its ships are usable where nothing else is. Moreover, ships can deploy and withdraw easily. They are very different from the other currently proposed means of unilaterally basing U.S. forces, a large floating structure which would have to be towed slowly into place and maintained there, just beyond the sovereignty line. Bases, even big floating artificial ones, are more or less fixed. During the Cold War, the main objection was that they could easily be targeted and wiped out.
Bases are still physically vulnerable. How can anyone forget the damage done by Viet Cong sappers attacking fixed air bases in South Vietnam? The attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia is surely in the same fine tradition. Second, they are politically vulnerable. Host countries may not agree with what we want to do. Does anyone remember the outcry in Britain, our closest European ally, after U.S. F-Ills based there attacked Libya in 1986? Third, they are big fixed investments that may quickly become obsolete as priorities change. That did not seem to be much of a problem during the Cold War, which effectively set world politics in concrete. But how much are the U.S. bases in central Germany worth now? Who would like to bet that the United States will still have a permanent presence in, say, Korea in ten years?
Throughout the lengthy conflict with Iraq, the U.S. position has been that it is safeguarding world peace by squeezing the Iraqis out of their programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), both nuclear and chemical-biological. Indeed, the pressure on Iraq is part of a much larger U.S. attempt to limit the spread both of the weapons and of the missiles that can deliver them. In several important cases, new U.S. military technology has been justified by its ability to help detect shipments of WMDs or to help detect the laboratories and factories in which they are being made. For example, the current program to develop specific emitter identification (SEI) techniques, i.e., radar fingerprinting, often is explained on the basis that it will make it possible to track individual merchant ships carrying WMDs. Much of the friction with China has revolved around Chinese unwillingness to stop selling ballistic missiles, often the favored WMD delivery mechanism, to states like Syria. Friction with the Russians often involves their willingness to export WMD-related technology or technologists.
Surely, we are safeguarding the world. For at least three decades, the U.S. government has tried hard to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Most of the governments in the world have agreed by signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The nuclear club hardly has grown at all since India exploded a device in the 1970s. One country, South Africa, built and tested a bomb and then actually dismantled its arsenal (in secret). Two countries, Israel and Pakistan, may have bombs but never have tested them. at least so far as anyone is willing to say in public.
Most impressive, one might say, the might of the United Nations is behind the U.S. effort in Iraq. The Gulf War was a kind of wake-up call. Every nation realized the horrors that awaited, should Saddam complete his WMD projects. They all authorized the sort of intrusive inspections which would end that threat. The stand-off came, after all, when Saddam tried to block the inspectors. The U.S. reaction was to declare him in violation of the cease-fire. In theory that should have left him open to renewed hostilities.
And yet . . .
When it came to a vote in the Security Council, the United States was isolated. Only the British, who are closest to us in traditions and in politics, stood with us against Iraq. Three of the five members were quite unwilling to support any sort of armed action against Iraq. The Chinese were the most adamant. They have long regarded WMDs as equalizers. They are not at all happy that the United States is now the sole superpower. When there were two competing superpowers, a relatively weak China could play them off against each other. Despite considerable hype, China is still a very weak country, both economically and militarily. The country has considerable potential, but it has not been realized by any means. In the Chinese view, a wide proliferation of WMDs makes the world safer, not more dangerous, by clipping the superpower's wings. If we are forced to concentrate on protecting ourselves, we are unlikely to retain much interest in projecting our power. It was no accident, as the Soviets used to say, that the Chinese provided Pakistan with the design information they needed to build an atomic bomb.
This is, of course. a short-sighted view. If the Chinese really think they are en route to superpower status, the last thing they should want is nuclear weapons in the hands of whatever neighbors they may want to cow. China, however, has a very long history of exploitation by other powers. Its current rulers cannot yet feel strong enough to shed past habits of thought. They may even be right to feel that way.
This is not a simple matter of hostility to the United States. It goes much deeper. We generally feel that we are on the side of justice. Our traditions lead us to believe that we are for fairness, even when the outcome goes against us. What we generally miss is that very few people in the world have similar legal or ethical traditions. They do not appreciate that we are doing something for their own good, rather than simply to extend our power. We are not, after all, the world's government. To the extent that we sometimes act as though we are, we are quite frightening. As Americans, we may still feel that we are doing what is necessary and what is right. We ought to do so. But we ought not to assume that everyone else will necessarily support us.
The other two opposed Security Council members are France and Russia. Iraq owes both of them billions of dollars. During his war with Iran, Saddam cut off payments to France for much of his arsenal. Later, much of what he got from the Soviet Union was bought on credit. Now Saddam is promising both countries that, as soon as the U.N. sanctions are lifted, he will let lucrative contracts. Even though his past commercial performance leaves a great deal to be desired, both countries are hopeful. Iraq is potentially a rich country. Both badly need money. Both are therefore tiring of the sanctions, which prevent Saddam from earning the cash they want.
Saddam was clever enough to provide them with an excuse by connecting the continuing U.N. (U.S.-sponsored) embargo with suffering among the Iraqi people. Surely the embargo should have been lifted for humanitarian reasons. Few if any pointed out that, despite the embargo, Saddam has managed to build numerous new palaces and to continue financing his weapons programs. For that matter, few in the U.S. government seem to have realized that, for a really effective dictator, punishment visited upon the population (via an embargo) is unlikely to have much impact. The Soviet experience should have taught us that when goods are very scarce, the elite still generally gets what it needs. Moreover, scarcity can help cement Saddam's power, since he may now be the only one who can provide what they need to live. Some former Soviet officers have suggested that communist regimes prefer poverty, since in a very poor country the Communist Party has a monopoly on rewards. Maybe embargoes are not really the best way to deal with someone like Saddam; maybe the only way is a military one.
None of the three opposition Security Council members favors the unspoken U.S. demand. which is that Saddam be removed from power. For Americans, the great frustration of the Gulf War was that we stopped too soon, leaving Saddam's power intact. There have been endless arguments about who decided to end combat after 100 hours, leaving the Republican Guard, Saddam's bulwark, alive to kill Iraqis another day; or who mis-drafted the peace terms to leave Saddam the helicopters he used to crush the Shi'ite rebellion that broke out during the war.
The U.S. position is that Saddam is a regional Hitler and that once he gets WMDs of any deliverable sort he will set off a regional Holocaust. Surely that is so unacceptable that no one in the region will fail to support our pressure on Iraq. The shock, in the end, is that none of the regional governments has been all that enthusiastic. The Air Force did deploy some aircraft to Saudi Arabia, but carriers also went because the U.S. administration knew that, in a pinch, the Saudis might well refuse to allow attacks to be launched from their soil. In effect, the United States planned to protect their country despite themselves.
The point of all this is that the situation in the Gulf is likely to be more, rather than less. typical in the future. We are likely to find ourselves supporting of friends, but without much cooperation on their part. Fixed bases may well exist and even nominally be available-except for exactly the operations we want to be able to mount. The United Nations may seem to back us. but we will find that our friends on the Security Council will be less than enthusiastic about using force to achieve what we think are universally accepted ends.
That brings us back to the inspectors and their effects. The Iraqis have been very inventive. The inspectors have described endless subterfuges. The latest is that they are barred from Saddam's 43 palaces, many of which probably are weapons sites. Many times their attempts at surprise inspections were evaded or simply blocked. Saddam has come to realize that there is no real threat of force backing up the inspectors. He merely has to wait them out.
It is no accident that the United Nations has failed to authorize the use of force. It is politically correct to oppose the spread of WMDs. Not to do so would be to risk U.S. wrath. At the least it might have serious economic consequences, in the form of trade blockages. That is why most countries signed the non-proliferation treaty last year. However, as the Chinese have shown, many governments are probably not nearly so sure that WMDs are bad for them (clearly they are terrible if they are in their neighbors' hands). The U.S. government felt no groundswell of U.N. support for, say, an attack to eliminate the North Korean bomb program. It had to settle for an elaborate and as yet unconsumated form of bribery, in effect a unilateral solution.
Where does that leave us? Superpower status is very much worth our while. Shortly after the end of the Cold War. someone in the Defense Department was indiscreet enough to draft a paper suggesting that it should be U.S. policy to block anyone else's attempt to rival us. There was an outcry. How could we demand that everyone else be consigned to second-class status? Yet that is exactly our policy, and for us it is the right one. It demands that we thwart any attempt by any other country to acquire a WMD arsenal.
What Iraq shows is that other countries are less and less willing to support U.S. policy in this particularly insane region even when their true interests coincide with ours.
It already has been pointed out that—whatever the inspectors do in Iraq—as long as the Iraqi weapons scientists remain, the WMD programs can be rebuilt. Once oil is flowing, Iraq will be wealthy enough to buy whatever it needs to rebuild the programs. The unspeakable implication is that, if we are serious about stopping Saddam altogether, we must kill off his weapons-makers. We apparently have been unwilling to contemplate any such step. For example, we have said publicly that we do not want to fire missiles at Iraqi chemical-warfare sites for fear of killing people. If we hit an occupied lab, the first casualties would be those working on the weapons.
Whatever we do, we send a message to the dozens of governments who already are working on their own WMDs, despite their signatures on various treaties. Just how serious are we? Sometimes we say that we will act only in concert with other countries, through the United Nations. In that case, we may find ourselves so fettered that we cannot possibly deal with serious threats such as WMDs. We may fool ourselves into imagining that we can always form coalitions, and that we can therefore always count on foreign bases. The current experience in the United Nations should, therefore, be sobering. Neither coalitions nor bases will always be there for the taking. Just keeping the coalition together to fight in Kuwait may well have been President Bush's greatest Gulf War achievement. We should not take it for granted that it will be possible to recreate. Yet the Gulf area is probably even more vital to us now than it was in 1990-1991. We still have an enormous interest in thwarting Saddam's attempt to rearm.