William Pfaff

November 01, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS. — Paris.

SADDAM HUSSEIN seems determined to reject any compromise that might save his people from war, while George Bush's talk could make that war worse than it might otherwise be.

There has been no lack of efforts to find a compromise. Even Saudi Arabia briefly floated a proposal others have promoted, that Iraq give back most of Kuwait and negotiate with the Arab League and Kuwait's rulers for the rest. Last weekend, the Soviet envoy, Yevgeni Primakov, was in Baghdad again to suggest a new Arab diplomatic initiative.

But President Hussein, while professedly willing to talk, is unwilling to yield. His latest suggestion is that he give up all of the hostages he still holds in exchange for a promise that the U.S. and the U.N. will not attack Iraq. That simply means, heads I win, tails you lose.

It is quite possible that he misunderstands the full implications of his intransigence. His horizons have always been Iraqi and Arab, and Middle Eastern politics and negotiation are characteristically tortured and indirect.

In that respect Mr. Bush is the worst man to go against him -- bluff, unsubtle, moralizing, righteous, constantly comparing what is happening to World War II, when the West stood up to evil men and taught them a lesson about democracies provoked to wrath. It was his message again at Hickam Field in Hawaii Sunday. ''Appeasement only leads to new aggressions.'' Actually, historically speaking: yes and no.

The repeated comparison of Saddam Hussein to Hitler is not a useful one. Hitler was driven by an uncompromisable ideology that envisaged a European empire ruled by Aryans, ''cleansed'' of its allegedly inferior races. Germany at the time was the world's second most powerful industrial nation, possessing world-leading technology.

Saddam Hussein is simply another Third World dictator, of a notable but by no means unusual brutality. His ideology is national aggrandizement. His country is backward industrially, with a gross domestic product of some $59 billion -- well under half the industrial product of Belgium.

Belgium at least has a sophisticated armaments industry. Iraq's famous rockets and poison-gas plants all were bought abroad. Its planes, tanks, radar, missiles -- all come from the obliging governments or merchants of the Soviet Union, the United States, France, West Germany, Brazil, China. The Western powers have for years maintained a generally successful blockade of high-technology exports to the Warsaw Pact. One would think they could in the future manage the same thing with respect to Iraq.

The reason Mr. Bush's comparisons of Mr. Hussein with Hitler are dangerous is that they imply that the American goal is unconditional surrender. Is it? If we will accept nothing less than Mr. Hussein's head on a platter, a great many Iraqis, and Americans, assuredly will die before delivery is obtained.

Moreover, not all the others in our grand coalition are prepared to demand unconditional surrender at any price. If the United States finds the alliance dividing on this issue, things could become very difficult. The choice then might be war without regional allies, or a forced American climb-down, leaving Mr. Hussein strengthened.

A halt in the Gulf crisis short of war is going to involve a compromise of some kind. The notion of the simple solution -- the violently cathartic one -- is always seductive. It won't work here, for Saddam Hussein is not the cause of the Middle East's crisis, merely one of its results.

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