Washington-- Saddam Hussein's politically crafty decision to free the hostages in Iraq and Kuwait confronts President Bush once again with the root question of the Persian Gulf crisis: Are Kuwait and its oil supply worth the cost of American lives?
At the very least, the maneuver means the White House inevitably will find it far more difficult to build a consensus either in Congress or among the public for early military action against Iraq. And that is the case even if such action now presumably could be conducted without threatening the lives of hostages being used as human shields.
At the extreme, Mr. Hussein's gesture means the Iraqi leader has set the stage for a prolonged stalemate in the region.
From the outset, the crisis has been about oil; if Kuwait's national treasure had been soybeans, there would have been no crisis. But Mr. Hussein's crass manipulation of the hostages had given the president an emotional justification for taking a more aggressive posture against him. With the hostages out of the equation, the issue is back to Square 1 -- whether aggression against Kuwait should be tolerated.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III took a predictable line in his initial reaction to Mr. Hussein's gesture. "It does not lessen, nor should it lessen, our determination that Iraq's aggression against Kuwait must be reversed by full implementation of all the [U.N.] Security Council resolutions," he told a congressional committee.
On the face of it, Mr. Baker's logic makes sense. There is no reason Mr. Hussein should be given credit for discontinuing the barbaric practice of using human shields. The freeing of the hostages does nothing to atone for the original sin of a big state invading a small one and seizing its assets.
But international politics, like domestic politics, often turns as much on perceptions and atmospherics as it does on logic. And the perception now will be that Mr. Hussein is responding to the pressures from the rest of the world and behaving more responsibly than has been the case since Aug. 2. Given that change in atmospherics, Mr. Bush clearly will find it more difficult to rally either U.S. allies or domestic support for an action that could cost tens of thousands of American lives.
As a practical matter, Mr. Bush seems to have lost the initiative in the last few weeks. Although the anti-war movement is still embryonic and unfocused, the demands for a more patient test of the sanctions have been gaining force, particularly as they have come increasingly from congressional leaders, such as Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who would never be accused of weakness.
One of the reasons for the relatively dovish behavior on Capitol Hill has been the discovery many senators and representatives of both parties made during the election campaign that ended just a month ago -- that although Americans were quick to say they supported President Bush's policy in the Middle East, they clearly were unwilling to pay a heavy cost in the lives of young Americans to carry it through successfully.
Mr. Bush himself seemed to be reacting to the ambivalence in the electorate by finding new foundations for military action. That is why he pressed so hard to win the Security Council resolution giving Mr. Hussein a Jan. 15 deadline for withdrawing from Kuwait. That is why Mr. Bush suddenly raised the issue of whether Iraq's potential for developing a nuclear weapons capability should be a consideration in deciding on military action. And it is why he was willing to go "the extra mile" by approving direct contacts with Mr. Hussein.
Through it all, however, the saber-rattling has never ceased. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney testified that he doubted the sanctions would work and suggested that military action would be better sooner than later. Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Congress that this would not be a question of a quick and painless air strike but would require massive force -- the implication being that it might require heavy costs as well.
The White House now can claim -- and is already doing so -- that the decision by Mr. Hussein to free the hostages is proof that the tough approach works. But the international response makes it clear that U.S. allies are drawing the inference that if Mr. Hussein is willing to go this far, he may indeed be willing to withdraw from Kuwait.
And the reaction both at home and abroad makes it plain that there will be heightened demands now to give him more time to do so and avoid a senseless war.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.