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  • Crisis In The Gulf, by George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Et Alia. As Told to the New York Times
  • Frederick M. Dolan

. . . the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars or revolutions.

— Paul de Man

In the life of a nation, we’re called upon to define who we are and what we believe. Sometimes the choices are not easy. As today’s President, I ask for your support in the decision I’ve made to stand up for what’s right and condemn what’s wrong all in the cause of peace.

— George Bush

The crisis in the Gulf, as today’s President acknowledges, is in large measure a crisis of self- definition: a matter of identity (as in defining America’s role in a post-cold war world, and indeed of writing the rules for such a world), of marking or highlighting the boundary between self and other (as in the ownership and control of “the world’s largest oil reserves,” or as between the civilized and the uncivil). Following a long Orientalist tradition, the West feels compelled to go elsewhere in search of its defining characteristics, even if this means, to use President Bush’s own metaphor, drawing lines in the sand. As his image forces one to reflect, sand—especially the shifting, wind-blown sand of the Arabian Empty Quarter—is a most unstable medium, and a line drawn in it is likely to be erased with the next change in weather. The contours of the boundary lines and identity President Bush hopes to define remain, it is true, somewhat murky. At the same time, for those who have followed literary theory over the past two decades, the battle over what meaning to assign Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait possesses an uncanny familiarity. The seemingly anarchic spin-doctoring of American officials charged with formulating war aims that seem at once defensible and feasible, and the way in which their efforts have been judged and interpreted in the press, have to do, in particular, with the much-discussed questions of allegory, symbol, and irony.

At first glance, the debate in Congress and the media appears to be an argument over the appropriate allegorical reading of the Gulf crisis, with the Bush administration insisting on the pre-text of World War II and the lessons of Munich, and its critics favoring the script of Vietnam. To much of the public, the Bush administration’s deployment of nearly 400,000 troops, and billions of dollars of weaponry both high-tech and low, is allegorically intelligible in terms of the story of America’s tragic and ambiguous “involvement” in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, it is said, the United States is taking the lead in fighting somebody else’s war; as in Vietnam, the Middle East is figured as a “quagmire” in which American troops will become—what else?—“bogged down.” The Middle East will be transformed into a huge Lebanon, with the emergence of hopelessly ambiguous and complex factions intractable to the Manichaean American mind. American morale will gradually be destroyed, and America’s standing in the world will once again be diminished.

Against this allegorical interpretation of the crisis, officials, media pundits, and a farrago of “experts” on matters from national security to Middle Eastern politics insist that the events taking place in the Gulf bear no relevant relationship to Vietnam. Our commitment in the Gulf is clear and forceful where it was ambiguous and shifting in Vietnam. As opposed to the gradual escalation that characterized Vietnam, plans for war in the Gulf, in so far as we can tell from press reports, suggest an all-out, all-or-nothing operation. More importantly—though for ideological reasons this point,qua allegory, must remain tacit—the campaign against Saddam Hussein involves “big principles” and “vital interests” (the tacit point being that Vietnam involved neither). The vital interests are variously described as oil or jobs; the big principles are those of territorial integrity, opposition to aggressive war, and respect for United Nations resolutions. The allegorical pre-text for the Persian Gulf crisis, in this optic, must be World...

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