Pausing at the Rim of the Abyss

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Having marched headlong to the precipice of war, both sides in the Persian Gulf conflict peered into the abyss last week and took a deep breath. From all the signs, each party wanted to inch back from the brink.

There was suddenly an enormous amount of talking -- peace talk, settlement talk, negotiation talk -- but most of it was just that, talk. Saddam Hussein, looking a little sweatier, issued a flurry of offers to negotiate, but his antics seemed intended mainly to avert a military showdown. A clutch of mediators led by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar set off on peacemaking missions, yet none carried much promise of success. In Washington, President Bush toned down his rhetoric and turned his attention to diplomacy, but said bluntly that he had no immediate hope for "fruitful negotiations." Despite a gut sense that both sides might be looking for a peaceful exit from the crisis, neither seemed prepared to give way on its basic -- and irreconcilable -- demands. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," said British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in a remark about Saddam's treatment of the hostages. "Now a little mercy, now some more ruthlessness."

For the moment, an uneasy equilibrium was reached. By most accounts, the U.S. had pumped sufficient firepower into Saudi Arabia to deter an Iraqi attack but not enough to retake Kuwait by force. The interim was giving both sides time to work out just what they were willing to fight or settle for. For the U.S., the choice was between defusing the immediate crisis -- either by waiting for the sanctions to work or by accepting some kind of a settlement -- or getting rid of the menace in Baghdad once and for all. For Saddam, the question was whether to retreat now with some face-saving concession and live to fight another day, or to stand his ground in Kuwait at the risk of military confrontation.

While pondering their options, both were probing to see if there was any give on the other side. Saddam Hussein continued to play on public opinion, trying to break open the alliance arrayed against him. He used television regularly to say he welcomed peace talks without preconditions, while his government quietly proposed slightly more reasonable settlement offers. He promised to release the women and children among Iraq's foreign hostages -- at week's end hundreds of them were ferried out of the country -- and said he would let the men go too, if only the U.S. would swear not to attack Iraq. To avoid a shootout on the seas, Saddam instructed his ships to submit to searches by Western vessels enforcing the U.N. economic sanctions.

But it seemed more public relations than reality, a way of buying time while he tested the staying power and cohesion of his enemies. In the process, Saddam aimed to consolidate his own position. "He hopes that after a while everyone will get used to Kuwait's being under Iraqi control," said an Iraq expert who advises the U.S. military on Saddam. Yet with the kind of schizophrenia that seems to characterize many of his moves, Saddam's cruel dallying over the hostages not only dissipated any goodwill his promise was intended to earn but made his opponents even angrier.

For its part, the Bush Administration realized it could not cede all the peace talk to Saddam. The U.S. had to be seen to be looking for negotiated solutions even while standing ready to employ force. To achieve an Iraqi withdrawal, President Bush allowed last week, "you have to talk." Concerned by Soviet complaints that the U.S. has given diplomacy short shrift, the White House announced on Saturday that Bush will head to Helsinki this Sunday to discuss the gulf situation, among other things, with President Mikhail Gorbachev.

All over the region, volunteer statesmen shuttled across borders talking up peace. Jordan's King Hussein flew to Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and then on to Europe to little avail. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat pushed his unrealistic plan for a settlement in talks with French Prime Minister Michel Rocard. Even Jesse Jackson traveled to Baghdad, ostensibly as a TV journalist, though he did help make arrangements for the departure of several hostages.

With all that goodwill in the air and with the news that OPEC had freed its members to make up for lost Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil, world financial markets recovered slightly from the previous week's nose dive. The respite helped generally to ease tensions and shore up international solidarity. "You can feel it around here," said an army colonel at the Pentagon. "The pace continues, but the anxiety has abated."

The glimmers of peace were probably just a mirage. Neither the U.S. nor Iraq was reversing course. America and its allies continued to insist on nothing less than Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, but no one expected , Saddam to agree to that now. What concessions the Iraqi leader did offer were widely dismissed as p.r. ploys calculated to fracture the broad alliance of nations ranged against him. "I hope we will come out of the war mind-set," said French President Francois Mitterrand, "but I have not seen obvious signs over the past few days of an improvement in the situation."

Even as Perez de Cuellar huddled in Jordan with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, the consensus among Western powers was that there simply was nothing to negotiate. The U.N. chief emphasized that he did not plan to bargain with Baghdad but would try to persuade the renegade state to abide by the Security Council's demand for a pullout from Kuwait, the restoration of the deposed Emir and the release of all hostages. When his sessions with Aziz ended, Perez de Cuellar announced "disappointment" at the result.

Yet some were beginning to wonder if the Iraqis were growing more pliable. The U.S. military buildup was unrelenting. The economic sanctions were beginning to pinch: breadlines were long in Baghdad last week, prompting Saddam to ration food and send envoys around the globe in search of new supplies. Said Perez de Cuellar: "I have seen some indications that Iraq would like to find a way out."

The clearest signals came in the form of half a dozen trial balloons floated by Iraq to Washington through back-door intermediaries. Saddam has publicly denied supporting any of these initiatives, though Bush Administration officials have confirmed that at least some of them came from Iraq's Foreign Ministry. The most recent feelers added up to an offer of withdrawal from Kuwait and release of all foreign nationals in return for several concessions: federation or some other close association between Kuwait and Iraq; guaranteed Iraqi access to the Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warbah, which block most of Iraq's scant 18 miles of Persian Gulf shoreline; and settlement of Iraq's claims regarding pumping rights in the Rumaila oil field, which lies mostly in Iraq but dips slightly into Kuwait.

The U.S. would grant none of these as preconditions to a pullout. The last two items, officials admitted, could be negotiated between Iraq and Kuwait after a withdrawal is complete. "Then the two countries can reach any agreement they want," said an Administration source. But any formal Iraq- Kuwait link is out of the question for Bush's camp. "That demand tells us that Saddam Hussein still doesn't get it," said a senior White House ; official. "We haven't yet convinced him that he can't hang on to Kuwait, not even indirectly." It was notable, however, that Baghdad's offers were growing progressively less objectionable.

The positive aspects of Iraq's latest peace plans, however, were undercut by other bellicose actions. Saddam formally designated the oil-rich land of Kuwait the 19th province of Iraq. Although Baghdad promised that the estimated 11,000 women and children among its 21,000 Western hostages would be free to leave last Wednesday, most of those who chose to depart were delayed by red tape. On Friday 19 Italians managed to depart, and the next day several hundred other foreigners were flown out.

On the military front, there was no retreat. According to the Pentagon, Iraq last week reinforced its troops in and around Kuwait to 265,000. These moves were probably defensive; virtually no American official believes Iraq will push farther south now that the Saudis are backed by 50,000 American troops and the muscular arms of the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Still, Baghdad asserted that if war broke out, it would attack not only Saudi Arabia but Israel too. That would provoke a roaring conflagration in the region, with the Israelis and their American allies retaliating in force but with the other Arab states lining up behind Baghdad.

By sending out such contradictory messages, Saddam must reckon that some of his opponents might be more willing to accept peace on his terms than others would be. And as the crisis moves into a period of stalemate, Washington faces real difficulties holding the united front together. For the first time, Moscow openly criticized the American military effort in the gulf. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Belonogov disavowed the U.S. decision to send in troops and questioned whether they would ever leave the area.

The Arab states are an even weaker link in the chain. They keep talking about an "Arab solution" to the crisis, the talk emanating mainly from the factions most sympathetic to Saddam, such as Jordan, the P.L.O. and some of the countries of the Maghreb. While no actual plan exists, the idea generally includes a withdrawal of all non-Arab forces, some kind of face-saving concessions for Saddam and an overarching settlement of the two other flash points in the region -- Lebanon and the Palestinian problem.

But last week's Arab League summit in Cairo merely underscored the sharp division in the Arab world. The only members who turned up, except for Libya, + were the 12 who had voted three weeks earlier to condemn Iraq's invasion and send Arab troops to help defend Saudi Arabia. So far the Arab governments allied against Iraq are holding firm, but Saddam is shrewdly working to undercut their positions with his talk of negotiation and by exploiting grass- roots resentment toward the American presence.

In a counterparry, Washington worked to bind the anti-Iraq coalition more tightly. To spread the responsibility for subduing Baghdad more evenly and ensure that the Arab allies are not squeezed dry by the trade embargo, the Bush Administration proposed last week that its richer friends contribute to an expense fund. With the shape of the entire post-cold war world at stake, said Bush, countries like Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea should help with $1 billion a month to defray much of the $1.4 billion monthly costs of the U.S. deployment. They should pony up $10 billion more to reimburse Jordan, Egypt and Turkey for losses caused by the ban on Iraqi trade. The fund was also designed to ensure the continued support of the U.S. Congress, likely to grow restive at footing the bill alone while facing a mushrooming federal deficit. Though overwhelmingly supportive of the President's actions, lawmakers who met with him last week made burden sharing a top priority.

Washington also began a broad effort to build up Saudi Arabia's arsenal so that it can defend itself better. The Administration agreed to sell Riyadh $2.2 billion in sophisticated new armaments, including 12 F-15s, 150 M-60A3 tanks and 200 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. The Israelis, fearful that the Saudis might one day turn that might against them, were alarmed by the new commitments. Of course, they are asking for more weapons and military aid themselves. The Bush Administration appeared receptive. Washington was also considering forgiving all or part of Egypt's $7.1 billion military debt to the U.S.

Worries about the staying power of the international coalition in part accounted for the resolution last week of a raging debate within the Bush Administration over how far to go in putting Saddam down. One school, led by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, argued that even if Kuwait were liberated, Saddam should not be allowed to remain in power in Iraq with his million-man army, his chemical weapons and a nuclear potential intact. Unless disarmed completely, he could intimidate his neighbors at will, and he would be able to ( launch an even more aggressive challenge to the global order next time.

The Israelis staunchly backed Cheney's view that it is wiser to dispose of Saddam now than face graver peril doing so later. But the opposing camp, led by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, won out with its admonition against expanding U.S. war aims beyond restoration of the status quo ante. Scowcroft feared that the U.S. might not be able to sustain domestic and international support long enough to remove Saddam from power, which would probably require military action. "Nobody in the world was willing to go to war for that objective before the invasion of Kuwait," said one senior official, "and it is not clear why we should remain at war for those objectives after we reverse the effects of the invasion."

To prevent Saddam from turning right around and molesting his neighbors again, the Bush Administration will suggest that any Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait be followed by the establishment of a multi-national force, preferably made up mainly of Arab troops, to act as a trip wire. There is also much talk of maintaining a permanent U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia to keep Iraq honest, but most analysts outside the Administration doubt the Arabs would tolerate that for long. Said Bush: "I think the world would demand that there be no chance of another invasion the minute this ended." The problem is how to get Saddam to agree.

The so-called pragmatists around Bush convinced him that a U.S. drive to oust Saddam and weaken his military might bring a host of nasty repercussions, including seething Arab resentment against the U.S. "imperialists" and their ruling Arab cohorts, a radical Shi'ite takeover of Iraq and the weakening of Iraq as a military counter to Iran and Syria. The pragmatists added a kicker -- probably wishful: just forcing Saddam out of Kuwait would humiliate him so badly that it might lead to his overthrow. Said Bush last week: "It wouldn't disappoint me if the Iraqis got up and said, 'Look, this man is our problem.' " But he stopped short of setting that down as an American objective.

This scenario must be very much on Saddam's mind too, a fact that argues against his giving up his new 19th province without a fight. For the moment Saddam appears to be calculating that the danger he faces from his population as food supplies run low is not yet as great as the perils he would face from his generals should he pull out of Kuwait with nothing to show for it.

While all the talk last week felt good, none of it looked very promising. The U.S. and its allies still need to reach a broad consensus on just what their goals are and which ones they are willing to fight for. Few Americans believe oil is worth a war. The Bush Administration has apparently decided that evicting Saddam from Kuwait is sufficient, and that certainly leaves open the possibility of an outcome short of war. Everyone fears the consequences of demanding more. Yet the West must ask itself if Saddam's withdrawal will be enough to bring real and permanent peace to the gulf.