THAT NEW world order George Bush speaks so glowingly about is beginning to look suspiciously like 1938.
Once again an unprincipled aggressor covets a neighboring piece of real estate. Once again he seeks to rally a great people behind him, playing on its deepest grievances, nursing its pet hatreds, invading and destroying without fear of disPaulGreenbergsent in his police state of a country.
The world responds only slowly, uncertainly, indecisively. It talks but hesitates to act. Anger and resolution give way to acceptance and fear. An international coalition is organized but the strains remain visible. Troops are deployed but not used. Hesitation sets in. Hopes are pinned on lesser measures, like diplomatic pressure or an economic embargo . . .
One day it is decided that aggression is negotiable. An emissary is to be dispatched to the aggressor for a face-to-face meeting. The world is assured that no principle will be compromised, that this will be only an absolutely last, final, face-to-face warning to the aggressor. But once the fate of a small country is put on the bargaining table, the aggressor will have his demands, too. And when he is granted only some of them, the world will sigh in relief, and declare peace in our time.
This road George Bush is traveling looks mighty familiar. Of course: It is the road to Munich.
The president's decision to send his secretary of state to Baghdad may have seemed the only way to hold a nebulous international coalition together -- and garner a little bipartisan praise from what is now a deeply divided Congress.
Saddam Hussein's response will be predictable -- and oh-so-reasonable. He may ask for only a few minor concessions, like half of Kuwait's oil, an island or two in the gulf, and a death grip on Israel. This will be called peace in our time, and it will please multitudes the world over whose historical perspective doesn't extend past their noses.
If he's as clever as he is ruthless, Saddam Hussein may even agree not to publicize the details of this deal until after it's announced that he's agreed to depart Kuwait, or what's left of it. He can be paid off after the cheering stops, when the sell-out won't be so noticeable.
Even if Saddam Hussein were now to depart Kuwait unconditionally, what would the message be -- that in this brave new world, aggressors will have to leave and take their booty with them? Is that likely to deter Saddam Hussein or any other disturber of the peace?
To quote Richard Perle, whose testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee has been the most historically informed and politically realistic: "What is needed, Mr. Chairman, is a convincing demonstration that the price of aggression is greater than merely returning the spoils."
More impressive than the last dozen resolutions of protest from the United Nations would be the establishment of a war crimes tribunal to consider the case of the world vs. Saddam Hussein. Nothing may so wonderfully concentrate the mind of an aggressor as the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight.
Convening a trial for war crimes would certainly be more effective than relying on an embargo against a largely self-sufficient dictatorship that has just withstood a million casualties in eight years of brutal war. After its devastating conflict with Iran, the effects of an international embargo on Iraq's economy must seem like a step up.
Only slowly does it dawn: Time is not on our side. With each day that passes, the vague alliance against Saddam Hussein grows more vague. The most important battle -- for American public opinion -- is being lost.
With each passing week, it becomes more and more unthinkable to more and more Americans that Kuwait should be worth war. "How horrible, how fantastic, how incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing!" -- Neville Chamberlain, September 1938.
Washington now moves to negotiate with Baghdad, however gingerly. The scene is being set for some kind of "face-saving" compromise, when what's needed is a solution that humiliates Saddam Hussein. The moral of this crisis must be not merely that aggression doesn't pay, but that it is sure to cost the aggressor everything.