Kuwait is at a crossroads. If Emir Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his aides quickly reconstruct the economy and learn to share power, the country can become a model for Arabs as well as an important ally of the United States. But if they dally and resist, Kuwait could well become a place of troubles. The stakes are high for Americans as well as Kuwaitis. What looks now to be a stunning U.S. policy success could look very different if Kuwait, the object of it all, starts to look like it wasn't worth the trouble.
Conversations with Kuwaitis who lived through the half year of Iraqi occupation, with its atrocities and deprivation, manifest a growing impatience. They want a voice in running their country, and they want it now. Before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaitis numbered among the most pampered and self-indulgent people in the world. But when catastrophe struck, they responded with a heroic seriousness of purpose. The recently returned authorities seem not to have fully understood these changes. While they quickly agreed to reinstate the 1962 constitution, which includes liberal provisions for democracy, they have done little more. In their hearts, it seems, the leadership hopes to retain its old paternalism.
The gulf between the authorities and the resistance is pervasive. Take the emir's return to Kuwait on March 14. The official press headlined the event, "Day of Return, Day of Homage," and provided a totally uncritical account of the event. In contrast, an unauthorized broadsheet distributed in Kuwait City during the first half of March (and subsequently shut down) welcomed the emir home but pointedly reminded him of several matters: Kuwaitis will not be subjects, but insist on being citizens; freedom cannot exist without democracy; and Kuwait "is not just a wellhead, but men and women."
While these are hardly revolutionary sentiments, they suggest tensions-tensions exacerbated by the deterioration of living standards since Kuwait was liberated three weeks ago. Not only have hardly any oil well fires been extinguished and few mines cleared, but electricity, water, and telephone services have not been restored. Municipal functions hardly exist. The country is in complete economic disarray: there was no Kuwaiti currency until two days ago and banks were not functioning. Insurance payments have not been. As the resignation last week of the cabinet confirmed, these problems stem less from technical difficulties than from a failure to make hard decisions.
Add this to the strong emotions and weapons found among the Kuwaiti population, and violent disorder becomes a real possibility. The fact that the resistance acquitted itself far better than the official forces, either the military or the police, raises the possibility, however remote, of civil insurrection in Kuwait.
Americans have an enormous stake in preventing this discord. It would further destabilize a key region. It would deprive the U.S. government of a new ally in a key region. And it would sour the Desert Storm victory, rendering future American military efforts harder to justify.
Fortunately, the U.S. government can do much to prevent this dire outcome. In the first place, it should devote high-level attention to Kuwait. (In particular, this means not getting overly distracted by the Arab-Israeli conflict.) President Bush has announced plans to visit Kuwait in late April; he should not wait that long, for there is an urgent message that he alone can deliver to the emir-and that the emir has no choice but to accept.
Mr. Bush should press him to turn the promises of democracy into reality by fixing a date for elections, and assuring parliament's role in both drafting legislation and in appointing the cabinet. Because Kuwaiti leaders have little experience with democracy, the president might also take a few moments to explain the premises and virtues of democracy.
Further, Mr. Bush should address the sluggish pace of economic reconstruction, for this has become a political problem. He should urge the emir to delegate authority, either to competent Kuwaitis or to American corporations. These would then serve as project managers-one perhaps for the oil fields, another to repair the country's infrastructure. The project managers will then quickly and knowledgeably subcontract work to American and foreign firms alike. If the emir chooses American corporations to fulfill this function, Mr. Bush might offer his personal assurance that they will do high quality work with dispatch. Such a promise would address Kuwaiti fears about being taken for a ride and it would send a unique signal to corporations: rebuilding Kuwait is not just a commercial matter but a vital American interest.
Time is short. Unless Kuwaiti and American authorities move quickly, a unique opportunity will disappear, leaving possible disaster in its stead.