Iraq's Saddam Hussein finds himself increasingly boxed in by the two superpowers. One day after they combined for the first time in history to ram a use-of-force resolution though the United Nations Security Council, the United States and the Soviet Union reshuffled their tactics in their drive to force Iraq out of Kuwait.
President Bush, heretofore an exponent of the military option, flashed his diplomatic "extra mile" card by announcing the United States would engage, after all, in direct talks with the Baghdad regime about implementing U.N. demands.
Perhaps more than coincidentally, the Soviet Union switched from its repeated calls for a peaceful solution to issue its first warning of military action against Iraq if any of the 3,000 Soviet citizens there are threatened or harmed.
Whether these seemingly coordinated actions will convince the Iraq dictator that he has until Jan. 15 to comply with U.N. orders to end his aggression can only be surmised. But it reinforced the Bush administration argument that the only hope for peace -- for inducing Saddam Hussein to retreat or his army to overthrow him -- lies in maintaining a credible military-strike capability.
That capability, or at least U.S. readiness to use it, had become more doubtful by the day as an anti-war movement gained momentum among Democrats on Capitol Hill and with the public at large. By offering to send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad and to receive the Iraqi foreign minister at the White House, the president may have triggered a chain of events that will shift attention away from congressional cross-fire. To soothe public concerns, he also promised that if war comes in the Persian Gulf it will not be another Vietnam, another drawn-out conflict in which American kids are put at risk because of restraints imposed on the military command.
Whatever the president's intentions, his turn to diplomacy was widely seen as an important last-ditch effort to avoid conflict now that the Security Council has sanctioned the use of force. Iraq's ambassador in Paris welcomed the news. Rep. William Broomfield, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, observed that Saddam Hussein now has "wiggle room" to save face. Stock prices rose and oil prices dropped.
Despite the outburst of optimism, the future of Iraq's military machine remains a core question still to be faced. President Bush said, significantly, that there can be no return to the "status quo ante," presumably meaning a situation in which Iraq has powerful chemical, biological, nuclear and sophisticated conventional arsenals to threaten its neighbors. But his list of specific demands skirted the issue, which gives double meaning to the Baker mission. Not only must Iraq be forced out of Kuwait but Saddam Hussein's ability to act as a regional marauder must be terminated.