Mostly fear, some hope, from Mideast observers here

January 10, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

The way Jerome Segal sees it, the United States and Iraq are involved in a very dangerous game of chicken.

"I don't think we can know just yet if war will come, because the two sides are playing chicken," he says, referring to the game in which two cars speed directly at each other until one driver, losing his nerve, pulls away at the last moment.

"Now we just have to wait to see whether someone on either side will whip the wheel around and avoid a collision," says

Segal, a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy in College Park. From his Silver Spring home, he heads two organizations called the Jewish Peace Lobby and the Jewish Committee for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

Segal and other Marylanders who have been closely monitoring the Persian Gulf crisis were asked to comment on events yesterday in Geneva. Talks there between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz apparently were unsuccessful in finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

"It's a disaster," Segal says of the stalemate. "It looks like war, and it's all so unnecessary. For months, we were containing Saddam Hussein militarily and economically. We had a good, low-key policy that would have exposed him to his own people and to the Arab world as a tinhorn dictator who made a major blunder."

But by seeking the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Segal says, the U.S. has "gone on the offensive and turned this into a daily crisis. Saddam can pose himself as the defender of the Arab world against the most powerful country on the planet."

Steven David, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a specialist in international relations, questions whether sanctions would continue to work.

"It's a hard guess, but I think the Iraqi leadership and military can remain well-fed and steadfast if we try to wait them out," says David. "True, the citizens there are having hardships, but the military is well cared for. It would take a very long time for sanctions to provoke the military into a coup or assassination of Saddam.

"Besides, here's a man [Saddam] who once gassed his own people, so I don't think he'll be too disturbed by the prospect of his citizens' suffering now."

Sister Maureen Fiedler, a Roman Catholic nun who is co-director of the Quixote Center, a national peace and justice organization in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County, takes it as a good sign that Baker and Aziz talked for six hours.

"I doubt they just handed ultimatums to each other for all that time," she says. "I think more went on in there than they're letting on."

The issues that led to the crisis are "eminently negotiable," Fiedler says.

"This has to do with disputes between Iraq and Kuwait over national borders and access to oil," she says. "If there's war, it will be a terrible war, with awful loss of life on both sides. Then they'll sit down to negotiate these points that could be negotiated now. They should settle it now before we do lose all those lives."

Max Obuszewski, a Baltimore peace activist who is monitoring the gulf crisis for the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, says he was not surprised by the turn of events in Geneva. However, he adds, he would be surprised if President Bush decides on a first-strike attack against Iraqi forces in Kuwait after next Tuesday's deadline.

"I still believe Bush would be hesitant to use force because there's strong sentiment in this country against war," says Obuszewski. "[Former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara recently told the Senate that war would lead to revolution in the streets here, and I have to agree with that assessment. I just hope the diplomatic channels between Iraq and the West are kept open."

Ashraf Ghani, an associate professor of anthropology at Hopkins and a specialist in Islamic culture, says the doomsayers who predict war are jumping the gun.

"Yesterday in Geneva was only the first meeting," says Ghani, a native of Afghanistan. "In the next few days, I think we will see an intense flurry of diplomacy. There will be a lot of pressure on Iraq from the European community, the United Nations and the Arab nations, which stand to lose their stability if Iraq, one of their own, is defeated and dismantled by Western powers."

She says the Bush administration has "boxed itself into a corner" because it has been "unable to find a rationalization for a possible war. For every war in U.S. history, there has been some kind of rationalization. But now, all the U.S. can rely on is legalisms."

Art Abramson, the director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, says he remains optimistic about "a U-turn in the negotiations," although he sees yesterday's events as a sign Saddam "is convinced that the U.S. does not mean business."

Contrary to how he is usually portrayed, the Iraqi president "is not a madman but a pragmatist," says Abramson, who earned a doctorate, with a specialty in Middle East affairs, from the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Twice before, in dealings with Iran, Saddam Hussein has backed down when he was convinced he had no choice," he says. "Clearly he is not yet convinced about the threat of war, and he won't back down until he is convinced."

In the coming days, leaders of European nations will try to show Saddam that "he's very wrong if he thinks the U.S. is bluffing," Abramson predicts. And if war breaks out, he fully expects an Iraqi strike against Israel, as Aziz promised yesterday.

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