Hostage to Hostages (II)

December 07, 1990

Five weeks ago in these columns, we made the observation that Saddam Hussein had become "hostage to his hostages." That state of affairs has now been confirmed. The Iraqi dictator's announcement that he would release by Christmas the thousands of hostages still in his clutches is hardly the humanitarian gesture he claims. Instead, it shows he has realized at last that the mass seizure of hostages is not a deterrent to a vigorous response from the civilized world community. Quite the reverse.

If future aggressors are henceforth discouraged from hostage-taking, that would be one good result from the Iraqi crisis. If international pressure now forces Saddam to get out of Kuwait entirely, it would be a precedent that would make the tribulations of the past four months almost worthwhile. This is no time for the United States to weaken its resolve. The alternative is a post-Cold War world plagued by hot regional conflicts.

Although release of the hostages responds to one of the demands President Bush has issued, three core objectives remain: Withdrawal without condition of Iraqi forces from the entirety of Kuwait; restoration of the emirate's legitimate government and establishment of a security system to protect the Gulf region from the depredations of regional powers, especially Iraq, Iran and Syria. While the first two objectives pose a potential for the war nobody wants, the latter goal offers at least a prospect for enduring peace. It should be pursued vigorously through creative U.S. diplomacy on a par with VTC America's post-World War II effort to bring stability to Europe.

Saddam Hussein's statement on hostage release gives some inkling of how he plays with facts and toys with human beings. His assertion that the completion of his buildup in Kuwait had eliminated the need to use his "guests" as human shields against U.S. attack makes no military sense. If there is war, the key targets for aerial assault will not be in Kuwait but in Iraq where military command and control centers, airfields and arms factories are located. His pretense that he was induced to acts of kindness by the pleas of supplicants coming to Baghdad is contemptible.

Americans ought to pay attention, however, to the strongman's assertions that his switch on hostage policy was at least partly caused by "transformations" in U.S. public opinion and "the decision of the Democratic majority in the American Congress." If he thinks release of his unwilling "guests" will seduce the American public and force the Bush administration to compromise on principle, much of the promise of direct top-level talks will have been dissipated. Mass hostage-taking and military expansionism can be eliminated in the future only if both are stymied and crushed.

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