Gulf Countdown

January 04, 1991

American citizens would be justified in thinking that neither the White House nor the Congress has been particularly deft in these jittery days leading to the United Nations' Jan. 15 "deadline" for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. The administration has allowed itself to be drawn into a diversionary squabble with Baghdad over a date for direct talks, too often getting into traps of its own making. Meanwhile, Congress kibitzes, unwilling to accept or forfeit responsibility for war powers President Bush claims as his own.

Secretary of State James A. Baker's offer to meet in Switzerland next week with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz smacks of being more of a damage-limitation maneuver than the "extra mile" for peace it probably is. Washington is wary of free-lance negotiations, especially by the European Community, and undoubtedly hopes the Baker mission will keep the diplomatic initiative in U.S. hands. Presidential advisers also figure, correctly, that while lawmakers will continue to debate they will be happily off the hook for a few more days so far as definitive action is concerned.

All this presents a fairly messy picture that Saddam Hussein would be unwise to interpret literally. True enough, the president's backing-and-filling on final dates for direct talks -- first Jan. 15, then Jan. 3, now who knows -- has been a propaganda setback for this country. True enough, congressional skittishness about war has undercut the image of U.S. steadfastness. But these are matters that can be swiftly overtaken and forgotten in event of a showdown.

Mr. Bush continues to get good marks, and rightly so, for organizing and holding together an unlikely international coalition ranged against Iraqi aggression. If this prototype for post-Cold War stability achieves its objectives, history will judge Operation Desert Shield money and risk well worth the candle. This applies, in our view, whether Iraqi's exit from Kuwait is the result of suasion or force. But if the end result is indecisive or, God forbid, disastrous, America's role in the world would be severely compromised.

Such are the stakes in this colossal confrontation of 1 million heavily-armed troops. Circumstances demand extraordinary care on the part of the presidency and the Congress. The Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill has dubious grounds for criticizing the White House when it simultaneously insists its assent is necessary for offensive military attack, shies away from a resolution of restraint and yet says any resolution of support would probably lose or pass only marginally. Clearly, both branches must find a way to act more coherently in the runup to crisis. This is as important as achieving national unity if and when a crisis finally comes.

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