WASHINGTON — WE'RE EYEBALL to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."
That was Secretary of State Dean Rusk's remark in the heart of the 1961 Cuban missile crisis when a fleet of Soviet ships suddenly did a U-turn in the Atlantic.
Now, three decades later, there's a similar moment of relief, celebration and half-dared hope. George Bush and Saddam Hussein are eyeball-to-eyeball -- and the other fellow just blinked.
When Saddam announced he'd free all his hostages, including 900 "guests of Iraq," he opened the door on a possible finale to TC the Persian Gulf imbroglio.
That's how the gulf imbroglio has gone -- a poker game for ultimate stakes in which both men bluster, threaten and bluff for a P.R. edge.
The '61 missile crisis was different. Because the superpowers were flirting with nuclear war, Kennedy and Khrushchev played the game at a cold, professional level.
Neither man called the other "a new Hitler."
But Bush and Saddam turned the gulf crisis into a personal mano a mano involving egos, pride and bombast. It's been a personal feud -- Bush haunted by a wimp stigma, Saddam lusting to be the Arab messiah -- in which they huff and puff like TV wrestlers.
"The crisis is over-personalized and over-dramatized," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, hawk of the Carter administration, now turned dovish.
He's right. Bush and Saddam have been dueling like a couple of ego-mad chess players, bellowing slanders as they maneuver for world opinion.
Its move and counter-move: Bush raises U.S. troop levels to 400,000. Edge to Bush. Saddam hangs tough. Bush plays his ace -- he'll send Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad for "discussions." Saddam reacts with a slick counter -- release of all hostages by Christmas.
No wonder Bush seemed stunned and wary after Saddam's hostage ploy.
"I hope it shows our strategy is working," Bush said. "It was a crime to take those hostages in the first place."
Now if both sides will shut up and lay off the white-hot rhetoric, there's a chance to avoid war. The word Bush ducks is "negotiation."
"Saddam took hostages off the agenda," says Middle East expert Geoffrey Kemp. "Now they can talk about procedures of Iraq clearing out of Kuwait."
Brzezinski pictures the scene. "Saddam asks Baker, 'If I get out of Kuwait, will you bomb me?' If Baker says no, Saddam says, 'Will you keep the sanctions on?' They'll negotiate."
The Iraq-out-of-Kuwait deal could look like this: A smaller U.S. force in the gulf as peacekeepers, stiff embargo on high-tech weapons to Iraq, perhaps a United Nations peace conference on the Middle East. That settlement might enrage such U.S. hawks as Henry Kissinger who want Iraq bombed into a parking lot.
But it would be a triumph for George Bush, who could declare victory and take most of his troops home.
If Bush gets out of the gulf tangle without losing one U.S. life or firing a shot, I'd suspect he'd be an enormously popular president with a strong chance for 1992 re-election.
Oddly, although Bush may never admit it, he'd owe a debt of gratitude to Democrats who balked at war.
On television, with the nation watching, Bush saw his war coalition fall apart. Bush grumbled that congressional critics played into Saddam's hands. And Jesse Helms slurred the "carping and second-guessing."
But the Senate TV hearings gave dramatic evidence -- the country was split, and every expert told Bush, "Wait, let sanctions work."
Sam Nunn's defection was crucial. More damaging was the anti-war critiques of ex-Pentagon chiefs Adm. William Crowe and Gen. David Jones. When seven former defense secretaries warn a president against a quick desert war, even Bush has to listen. Jim Baker's two appearances on the Hill were back-pedaling disasters.
To cool the critical heat, Bush sent Baker to Iraq. Now Saddam's hostage release may spring negotiations to end the Great Desert Standoff.
I don't expect an exultant Bush to say, "Thank you, Democrats."
But if these two guys lay off the insults, maybe peace will break out.