WASHINGTON -- Twenty-eight years ago, when President John F. Kennedy went eyeball-to-eyeball with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the placing of nuclear missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev under pressure offered to pull the missiles out if Kennedy would agree to remove American missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union.
The White House announced that Kennedy had refused, and instead was accepting a previous Moscow offer to take its missiles out without that condition. However, about four months after the Cuban missile crisis was over, the United States quietly revealed that it would remove its missiles from Turkey, while denying that such action was part of an earlier deal. But later reports indicated that there had been an understanding that the deployment in Turkey would end once matters cooled down, so it wouldn't look so obviously like a quid pro quo.
That bit of history is recalled now by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the wake of the hearings on the Persian Gulf crisis before the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member. "The way we settled the Cuban missile crisis could happen again," McCain suggests -- meaning President Bush may have opened the door to some kind of negotiation with Saddam Hussein while saying for public consumption that he will not negotiate.
Bush has said Secretary of State James Baker is going to Baghdad strictly to inform Saddam Hussein that the president means business on using force if Iraq doesn't pull out of Kuwait. But, McCain observes, "If all he wanted to do was say that he means business, he could have sent a carrier pigeon . . . or gotten his Fax number."
Some other senators on the committee also express the belief that Baker isn't meeting with the Iraqi dictator simply to deliver an ultimatum. While the conditions set out in the United Nations resolutions remain non-negotiable -- Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, restoration of the pre-invasion Kuwaiti regime and the freeing of all hostages -- these senators say they expect Baker will discuss with Saddam Hussein what can happen after those conditions are met.
Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio says Bush has been resorting to "little sound bites" to build public support for military action, but his Democratic colleague from Illinois, Sen. Alan Dixon, says he believes Bush is "not closing doors to negotiations on a peaceful settlement," provided Baker can get some movement from Saddam toward meeting the U.N. conditions. Even short of that, Dixon says, he believes the "overwhelming consensus of a majority of Armed Services members that he [Bush] ought to let a little time pass" will stay Bush's hand in the gulf, at least into the middle of next year.
Democratic Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennesssee suggests that "if Saddam Hussein is ever looking for a way to back down," Baker's visit to Baghdad gives him that. And, while it would not be proper to bring the Palestinian-Israeli dispute into discussions now, Gore says, "there are other things that might well be discussed" once the Iraqi strongman accepts the basic U.N. demands.
Gore, while generally backing the president's actions in going the extra mile with Saddam, says Bush will be asking for trouble if he proceeds with military force without seeking some statement of support from Congress. "If he decides not to make that request and declares war himself," Gore says, "that will have consequences for the country and for him that are not good. We've been this way before. This is not Vietnam by a long shot, but it's not Panama either." The lesson of Vietnam that a president risks losing popular support by not listening to public opinion, Gore says, still has validity.
Even though Bush is talking tough now about using force, McCain suggests he can afford politically to negotiate a deal that achieves the basic objectives because Americans clearly don't want war in the Persian Gulf. So if it turns out later that Baker really was carrying more to Baghdad than a demand for unconditional surrender, Bush in McCain's view will not be chastised for it.
The essential element, obviously, is for Saddam Hussein to blink first, just as Khrushchev did in October 1962 when the prospect of his pulling Soviet missiles out of Cuba seemed no more promising than an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait may seem now. And, if Baker shows a little flexibility in showing Saddam a way out, few are likely to hold Bush to account for saying publicly his man was not going to Baghdad to negotiate anything.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.