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First Steps Toward Peace

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed originally appeared in Newsweek, Dec. 17, 1990.

When U.S. officials sought the approval of other nations for the U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, President Mikhail Gorbachev and other key foreign leaders expressed deep concern. Some preferred negotiations with Iraq before force could be approved. The Iraqis had been calling for the same decision. The resulting American offer to engage in direct talks with Iraqi leader is praiseworthy; it also raises entirely new concepts in the resolution of the gulf crisis.

It is natural for President Bush to maintain that his stance is consistent and to say these will not be "negotiations." However, if the exchanges are to be genuine, it will be necessary not to lay down patently unacceptable preconditions or unalterable demands. Meetings just to deliver an ultimatum will not be productive; they will likely lead to war. We must have some flexibility.

Some of our previous unamended demands cannot be accepted by Iraq. Among these: the prohibition of benefits from the invasion, the payment of reparations and the elimination of Iraq's warmaking capability. Although highly desirable, it is unlikely that Iraq can be forced unilaterally to destroy its weapons of mass destruction.

To take a step toward peace, some of the goals of both sides have to be considered. They are not necessarily incompatible. The more basic U.N. demands can and must be accepted by Saddam Hussein if he wants to avoid war: withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the return of the legitimate government of Kuwait. He has already agreed to the third demand: the release of hostages.

On the other side, the allies might accept deviations from the status quo ante. These could come from an independent settlement of differences and, perhaps, forgiveness of Iraq's debt and a long-term leasing of land to give Iraq better access to the sea, and could be negotiated among the Arabs themselves. There is no need for the United States to demand a veto over such agreements.

Deployment of military forces far in excess of defensive needs and the resulting inability to rotate U.S. troops have created a general presumption that a military assault is likely, if not inevitable. Despite some evidence to the contrary, the official U.S. position seems to be that the economic sanctions will not work. These are presumptions the Congress and public have not yet accepted. President Bush is being urged by the American people to "convince us" that the liberation of Kuwait is so vital to U.S. interests as to justify the casualties of a major war.

Even the highly publicized threat of Iraq's nuclear development was partially discounted when inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iraq's known supply of enriched uranium is not being modified for explosive purposes. To produce enriched uranium by gaseous diffusion or centrifuges is an elaborate, time-consuming and easily detectable process. Regular inspections and a strict embargo on the sale of nuclear fuel and technology can help to assure that this situation does not change.

Another even more sensitive issue is whether to address the Israeli-Palestinian question in an international conference. Although it may be beneficial to do so, there are strong political reasons why such a conference cannot be "linked" to the Kuwait issue. At the least, Arab leaders can put this question on their agenda, something they have seldom failed to do in their various forums. At most, the United States could add its support to such a concept. In addition to the somewhat equivocal statement by President Bush at the United Nation, it is likely that there have been private assurances on this subject by U.S. spokesmen to Syria and to our other Arab allies.

High casualties: We still face an uncomfortable situation if the military option is all that is left. It is unlikely that any of our major Arab allies will join in an attack on Iraq. They have made it clear that their role is one of defending Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, moving to liberate Kuwait. It is not clear how the latter goal can be realized unless the Iraqi border is crossed. For all practical purposes, an aerial or ground war will be largely an American operation. "We have to live in the area" is the reason given for Arab restraint. As a practical matter, we also have to live in the Middle East. Our interests in the region will not dissipate after this crisis is over.

Our superb forces can prevail over those of Iraq, but top military experts have predicted casualties will be high. To the extent that we attempt to minimize U.S. troop losses by resorting to bombing, we will sharply increase deaths among Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians. Even in victory we will face other questions that have been broached but now answered, concerning democracy in the region, a more equitable sharing of oil wealth and the wide suspicion that our hegemonic interests will keep U.S. forces in the area.

There remains the constitutional question of whether the U.S. Congress has the responsibility to declare war as a precondition for military action against Iraq. A massive diplomatic effort was expended to obtain prior approval of the U.N. Security Council. As president, I understood the need for a unilateral decision by the commander in chief if an unanticipated emergency arose or when swift and secret action was necessary. However, if congressional action is not appropriate in this grave crisis, with the factors widely debated and well understood and with prior consultation with several allies required, then our Founding Fathers wasted some of their precious words.

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