WASHINGTON -- President Bush's suggestion that Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait offers the chance for a broader Mideast peace reflects administration officials' belief that the Persian Gulf crisis will end up strengthening those who want to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict peacefully.
Once Iraq has been forced out of Kuwait, they say, the path of aggression will have been shown to be a losing proposition. Moderate leaders, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, will be emboldened.
"If, in fact, Saddam Hussein has been forced to retreat and if the pathway that he embodies is clearly seen as being on the losing side, then those who favor reconciliation give us a possibility for pursuing peace," a senior State Department official said last week.
U.S. officials repeatedly have stressed there can be no "linkage" between Iraqi withdrawal and settlement of other Middle Eastern conflicts, including the Palestinian dispute and Syrian occupation of part of Lebanon.
To make such a link, they insist, would reward Mr. Hussein's aggression.
But the president's message yesterday was taken in some quarters as a sign of flexibility on Mr. Bush's part and therefore at least a slight push toward a diplomatic solution.
Clovis Maksoud, the outgoing Arab League ambassador, said that "although there is a definite rejection of linkage," the speech placed "an implied emphasis on the interrelationship" between the gulf crisis and the long-term peace process.
Rather than linkage, he said, "what is developing is the sequentiality of these issues."
He noted that Mr. Bush's speech followed one last week by President Francois Mitterrand of France that laid out a four-stage solution to the gulf crisis, beginning with an Iraqi promise to withdraw.
Once withdrawal, restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty and the "democratic will of the Kuwaiti people" had been guaranteed, Mr. Mitterrand said, other Middle East conflicts could then be solved separately through direct dialogue.
The French president's initiative drew some appreciation from Mr. Hussein Sunday and perhaps a hint
of a shift in his position as he called for an early dialogue and spoke in less bellicose tones, but without dropping any of his demands.
The United States has come under strong pressure, within the United Nations and elsewhere, to explore all avenues toward a peaceful solution before resorting to military action.
A key pressure point has been the Soviet Union, which early in the crisis voiced hope that the Persian Gulf issue could be settled in an international conference together with other Middle East conflicts.
By now, U.S. officials say, the Soviets seem to be persuaded that Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait can't be linked to these broader issues.
But one result of the president's speech yesterday may be to persuade those who saw the United States as pressing too fast for military action that it is in fact willing to pursue a peaceful solution.
Mr. Maksoud said the speech had in fact "implicitly devalued the rush toward a military option."
As one U.S. official sees it, this could strengthen the president's support if he decides that military action is unavoidable.
"It gave more reasons to more people to bite the bullet," the official said.
In fact, there is movement within the U.N. Security Council toward the possible use of force. Separately, Great Britain has been discussing a resolution dealing with reparations by Iraq for the damage its soldiers have inflicted on Kuwait and its people.
As he assembled international support for increasing pressure on Iraq, the president acknowledged that the Soviets have a constructive role to play in the Middle East, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III has said an international conference on Mideast peace could be useful when the time is ripe.
Mr. Bush's suggestion of an eventual broader Mideast peace process did not seem to alarm the Israeli government, which worries about a possible Persian Gulf settlement that fails to contain Mr. Hussein forever.
And a key Israeli supporter on Capitol Hill, Representative Larry Smith, D-Fla., noted that in discussing settlement of other Middle East issues, "the president specifically talks about the aftermath" of Iraqi withdrawal.