Last Gasps on the Negotiation Trail

  • Share
  • Read Later
For the entire 387 minutes that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz met in Geneva last week, a brown manila envelope lay unopened on the table, mute testimony to the breach between their positions. The package contained a letter from President Bush to Saddam Hussein conveying in stark terms Washington's determination to see Iraq leave Kuwait. Baker had given Aziz a photocopy of the letter at the outset of the meeting. As Baker and the 16 other officials present looked on, the Iraqi read the message slowly, his hands trembling. Finally, he said he could not bring such a letter to his leader; it was not cast, he said, in tones appropriate for communication between heads of state.

When the two sides broke for lunch, Baker deliberately left the envelope in the middle of the table, instructing an American security agent to keep an eye on it. As the meeting ended, Baker made a last stab. "Mr. Minister, I want to ask one more time. Are you sure that you do not want to receive this letter?" he said. "Yes," Aziz replied. Baker picked up the envelope and left the room.

The rest of the meeting was no more productive, though the atmosphere was calm and professional. There was no shouting, no pounding on the table. Aziz politely asked if he could light a cigar, and Baker, a former smoker, just as politely said he would relish the aroma. But neither side had anything new to say. Neither of the men budged a jot from their mutually exclusive positions. Baker said Iraq must quit Kuwait without conditions or face war. Aziz insisted the gulf conflict must be solved in conjunction with all Middle East problems.

Though Baker, the diplomat, was clearly depressed by the outcome of the discussions, his boss, the Commander in Chief, was unfazed. As Bush aides explained it, the Baker-Aziz conference confirmed the President's expectations without realizing his worst fears. "Anybody who expected a breakthrough in Geneva was a fool," said a White House official. At the same time, the Administration had worried that the Iraqis would spring a dramatic surprise, offering, perhaps, a partial withdrawal, which would have frayed the coalition against Saddam and made Congress less likely to authorize Bush to use force. That Aziz unpopped no jack-in-the-box was a relief to Washington. It was also a plus that the meeting went on so long. Should war finally come, the Administration can now say it seriously tried another way.

Administration officials pointed out that while Geneva proved a dead end, it was not the only path to peace. No sooner had Baker, briefing reporters, uttered his first "regrettably" than a haggle of diplomats began to accelerate the push for alternative peace initiatives. Among them were efforts by the French, the European Community and the Algerians to act as interlocutors. Most notably, United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar announced he would go to Baghdad to see Saddam. "The window for peace has not widened, but neither has it been slammed shut," said German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

Ironically, the stalemate in Geneva may make it easier for Iraq to accept someone else's settlement plan. "Saddam needs to look like he's standing up to the United States," said a White House official. "Slapping us down by refusing to accept the President's letter might help him save enough face to withdraw from Kuwait."

Certainly, the rejection of Bush's letter appeared to have been premeditated. U.S. officials believe Aziz had instructions to spurn anything other than a conciliatory message, though the Minister did study the letter as if to memorize its key parts. In fact, Bush's note was demanding though not recklessly impolite. It did contain one sentence that must have quickened Aziz's pulse: "Unless you withdraw from Kuwait completely and without condition," Bush wrote Saddam, "you will lose more than Kuwait."

Contrary to rumors before the meeting, the Americans did not try to scare Saddam by presenting intelligence reports on his recent movements. The U.S. has such information, collected mainly through electronic intercepts. Because Saddam moves around so much, however, there are periods when Washington is not certain of his whereabouts. But if war breaks out and Saddam is targeted, one American official asserted, the U.S. could attack each of the several locations where he is likely to be.

Trying to prevent such a showdown is now primarily a job for anyone but the Americans. In Geneva, Aziz reminded Baker, "You are American. You are not the world." Given that sentiment, the U.N.'s Perez de Cuellar appeared to be the most suitable intermediary. "He is a diplomatic ladder on which Saddam can climb down," said a senior French envoy.

After his 0-0 game with Aziz ended, Baker remarked that the U.S. welcomed "any and all diplomatic efforts to solve this crisis peacefully," but he repeatedly singled out Perez de Cuellar's efforts to the exclusion of the others. Washington found comfort in the notion that the U.N. chief presumably would be bound to insist on an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, since that is the demand contained in the 12 resolutions adopted by the U.N. Security Council since the invasion last August. Perez de Cuellar did bring . Saddam something new to mull over: a formal proposal that once Iraqi troops left Kuwait, they would be replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force that would exclude U.S., Saudi and other troops objectionable to Baghdad. That, at least, would spare Iraq the humiliation of having a massive American force next door.

Attempts by the E.C., the French and the Algerians to break the deadlock are less appealing to Washington. Last week the Bush Administration rejected a peace plan approved by the E.C. at an emergency session in Luxembourg on the grounds that it provided the linkage Saddam seeks between the gulf conflict and the Palestinian problem. The Community's members had committed themselves to contributing "actively to a settlement" of other problems in the Middle East once the gulf crisis is resolved. The U.S. has reluctantly endorsed the idea of eventually holding an international conference on the Middle East but does not want to tie the session explicitly to Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait for fear of rewarding Saddam for his aggression.

In any event, the Iraqis have cooled to the E.C. Punishing the Community for revoking an earlier offer to meet him in Rome, Aziz turned down invitations earlier this month to confer in Luxembourg and Algiers with an E.C. delegation headed by Luxembourg's Foreign Minister, Jacques Poos. The Iraqis suggested a later get-together in Baghdad, but the E.C. declined, calculating that to chase after Aziz would be perceived as a sign of weakness.

The French go even further than the E.C. on the question of linkage. They would flatly promise Saddam a Middle East conference in exchange for Baghdad's pledge to give up Kuwait. Paris argues that since it has long sought such a parley, it is actually giving Saddam nothing new. Washington sees it differently. Says French President Francois Mitterrand: "I respect Mr. Bush, but I do not feel myself to be in the position of a second-class private obliged to obey his commander in chief."

Because of its record as an effective mediator between Arab and Western countries, Algeria is in many ways well suited to the peacemaker's role. Before leaving Geneva, Aziz met with Algerian Foreign Minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali, apparently to no avail. Nevertheless, the Algerians have redoubled their efforts to reach a solution that is essentially based on the French model and that promises territorial concessions from Kuwait.

Last week the Bush Administration disclosed that Moscow too was "thinking ) innovatively" about ways to unravel the gulf mess. President Mikhail Gorbachev surprised his American counterpart with an early-morning phone call to discuss possible outs, which the Administration did not describe. While downplaying these proposals, Washington was gratified that after speaking with Baker about the stalemate in Geneva, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze sent Baghdad his own message, echoing the U.S. contention that Iraq must immediately choose war or peace.

As many and as varied as the peace efforts were, none appeared to offer much hope. Late last week Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim told TIME his country was "psychologically prepared" for peace talks. But, he said, Baghdad was sticking to its insistence on linking the gulf crisis with the Palestinian issue, a proposition Washington will not accept. "There is nothing new on our side," said Jassim. "We have nothing to add."

Many in Washington are convinced that Saddam is playing brinkmanship, and will pull out only when he is absolutely convinced that the Desert Shield coalition is dead serious about forcing him out of Kuwait, and only at the very last second before any assault occurs. As Baker told U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia last week, his fear is that Saddam "will miscalculate exactly where that brink is."

One clue from Geneva last week suggested that Saddam still needed a good deal of persuading. According to an intelligence service friendly to the U.S., Barzan Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother and the member of Aziz's delegation closest to the President, pronounced himself unconvinced by Baker's hard line. If Saddam believes his relative, he will see no urgency in accepting any proposal that leaves him with less than he started with, which is all of Kuwait.