State of the Union: uncertain

Paul Greenberg

January 08, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

ONE MORE time, Saddam Hussein has been given one more chance to make peace: This time it's Jan. 9 in Geneva. If his envoy doesn't announce that Iraq is withdrawing from Kuwait, how many other deadlines will be set and then ignored?

According to Marlin Fitzwater, presidential spokesman, this latest "last offer" means: "No negotiations, no compromise, no attempts at face-saving and no rewards for aggression."

Uh huh. That's not the message these never ending overtures send the aggressor. The tough words from the White House say one thing, but its actions another: Would the Americans be so anxious to talk if they were determined to act? By now Washington has drawn so many lines in the sand that the deserts of Araby must be cross-hatched.

Saddam Hussein will surely interpret Last Offer No. 12 (or is it No. 13?) as what it is: one more sign of weakness and vacillation. He will be sending his man to Geneva to bargain over the booty, not to return it and make amends. He may have offers to make (Israel for Kuwait?) but he's not about to announce that he's joined the civilized world. He holds all of Kuwait hostage -- and he's ready to deal. Bluster will not impress Saddam Hussein; he's a master at it himself.

This crisis might have been long concluded if the Bush administration had sent an Eisenhower warning. Shortly after Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States and commander-in-chief, he let it be known in Beijing and Pyongyang that the aggressors in Korea had a choice: Either make peace now or prepare to face nuclear assault. The peace talks at Panmunjon opened soon afterward.

Alas, in order for an Eisenhower warning to be effective, it has to be sent by an Eisenhower. If such a confidential dispatch were addressed to Baghdad at this late date, Saddam Hussein might only dismiss it as more mush from the wimp.

It is assumed, perhaps correctly, that the United States of America, the world's remaining superpower, will sit by and sacrifice its young men and women in a ground war rather than employ any of the vast array of immensely destructive weapons this country has spent decades and billions of dollars developing. It is as though bombs and missiles were to be saved rather than American lives -- and the lives of all the others who would be lost if this should prove a protracted conflict. Saddam Hussein certainly assumes as much. Else, he would have withdrawn from Kuwait some time ago -- or never dared invade it.

Once upon a time -- 1945 -- a president of the United States ordered a nuclear attack rather than prolong a war. That decision spared hundreds of thousands of young Americans, not to mention the millions of Japanese who would have perished in a bloody invasion of the home islands. The president who gave that order then went to bed and, he would recall later, never slept so soundly. Where is a Harry Truman when you need one?

Instead, this president equivocates, and Congress is as much help as any noisy kibitzer. It plans to stay in session for the next three weeks should the commander-in-chief need his warnings undercut or his plans heckled. Congress should have been asked to declare war about Aug. 3, the day after Iraq invaded Kuwait. But the president did not ask for a declaration of war when he might have got one, and now, at this late and divided stage in the dissolution of American public opinion, he might not get one even if he asked.

"We want to be supportive of the president," says Maine's George Mitchell, leader of the opposition in the Senate. "We want to enhance, not detract from his credibility." One would never have suspected as much from his other statements, namely that the president had better not use military force against the aggressor without congressional approval, and "Further, I advised the president I think it doubtful that such a resolution would pass at this time." With help like that, the commander-in-chief needs no hindrance.

Why should the Iraqi strongman negotiate in any serious way if he can count on Congress to undercut the American military effort? To achieve that objective, a small battalion of congressmen on Capitol Hill would be infinitely preferable to any number of Revolutionary Guards in the field.

This new Nebuchadnezzar must think he's got us figured: The longer Saddam Hussein can prolong this confrontation, the more confused and more divided Americans will become. After prolonged negotiations and the ballyhooed announcement of some simulacrum of compromise (peace in our time!) Saddam Hussein could retire from the field with the choicer parts of Kuwait in his possession and the praises of the souk ringing in his ears. No friend of America's in the Arab world would be safe. Then it would be time to ready his next demand, and his next . . . and the scary part is that he may be right.

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