BOSTON — PRESIDENT Bush insists that there can be no negotiation with Iraq and that the threat of war remains high. When Saddam Hussein decided to release his hostages, Bush said a peaceful solution was no closer. With Americans out of the way, he said, it would in fact be easier to make war on Iraq.
But negotiation has already started. There is every reason to think it will go on. And that makes war distinctly less likely.
Think about Secretary of State Baker's meeting with Saddam in Baghdad, whenever it is finally scheduled. Is Baker going to come back saying the meeting was a total failure? That war is the only option?
If Saddam were intransigent, refusing to talk about withdrawal from Kuwait, then Baker might well come back with such a message. And Bush would then have more public support for war.
But the Iraqi dictator knows all that. He has already shown that he can read American feelings and can move to avoid danger to himself. One reason he decided to release the hostages was surely to remove one casus belli.
In meeting Baker he will be quite aware that to avoid war he has to give ground on Kuwait.
It seems to me likely, therefore, that Saddam will tell Baker that Iraq is withdrawing from Kuwait -- but that he needs assurances on some points. For example, he could announce a withdrawal in stages:
"Stage one has already begun, Mr. Secretary. Our troops began pulling out at 5 this morning. But it will take time, and there are security problems. Before finally leaving, we need to know when American forces will leave Saudi Arabia, who will maintain security in Kuwait and when sanctions on us will end."
If Saddam makes that kind of statement, is Baker going to refuse a discussion? Is he going to come out and say that Iraq has not met the demand for unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait so there must be war?
The truth is that there would not be much American support for a war in such a scenario. Nor would there be much if Saddam did what many think he may do: withdraw from all of Kuwait except two islands at Iraq's outlet to the Persian Gulf and Kuwait's portion of a disputed oilfield.
Baker was asked Sunday on the ABC News program "This Week With David Brinkley" whether it would be credible to threaten war over the islands and oilfield. He answered yes, "to say anything else would be to reward an aggressor."
But the real world is not like that, and Baker knows it. Americans are deeply divided over the possibility of war as it is. Can one imagine Bush trying to take the country into war over the islands and oilfield?
There are other ways to deal with the border questions. The United Nations could keep sanctions on Iraq's oil exports until its withdrawal was complete. Or the border issues could be put, by mutual consent, to a legal tribunal of some kind.
Those are matters for diplomacy, and there will be diplomacy -- not just Baker looking Saddam in the eye and delivering an ultimatum. In fact the diplomacy has started.
Last week Baker gave assurance that American forces would not attack Iraq if it left Kuwait. This week he emphasized that Iraq and Kuwait can discuss their differences, on such issues as the border, after Iraqi withdrawal.
"We are already involved in the negotiation process," former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told the Boston Globe.
Vance called for an international conference on the Middle East to discuss security arrangements for the region after this crisis ends. He said it should consider, among other things, Iraq's nuclear capacity, arms sales to all countries in the region and the Palestinian question.
The conference idea is a prickly one for the Bush administration because of Israeli objections to international consideration of the Palestinian question. But the United States has a strong interest in reducing instability in the Middle East, and Baker has already said that security must be dealt with after the crisis. If the promise of a future conference would help to end the crisis, would Americans prefer war?
Bush no doubt feels he must keep the pressure on by making warlike noises. But if Iraq does withdraw, even with conditions, he will surely want to rebuild Kuwait -- and leave the rest to diplomacy.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.