WASHINGTON — SOMEDAY, after the Great Desert Standoff has exploded into flame, it will be remembered as the moment the bubble burst. For six hours and 27 minutes, a wired-in world dared believe the meeting between the United States' Jim Baker and Iraq's Tariq Aziz might bust through to peace. The bubble of hope shimmered.
Then Baker, his face bleak as a rainy-day funeral, emerged to say the grim words: "Regrettably, I heard nothing today that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility." Asked his mood, Baker said, "Somber. You got it."
Aziz, the portly foreign minister who looks like a scholarly butler, came out to say with mournful bravado, "We are prepared for the worst." A few minutes later, a glum, downcast George Bush said, "It was a total stiff-arm, a total rebuff . . . It's discouraging."
Goodbye, bubble. For millions -- the 400,000 U.S. troops in combat gear, their relatives, their allied comrades, Iraqi soldiers and civilians -- it may have been the fateful moment of their generation. Sure, there were a handful of days left until the Jan. 15 deadline. But someday, after tanks burn on the dunes and bombers smash cities, will people ask: Did this have to happen? Was it a war of blunders?
"It's a dialogue of the deaf," Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, a man who's seen far more combat than the commander-in-chief, said in dismay. "They're just talking past each other."
Glenn got it right. In the ballyhooed "last mile" Geneva meeting, the United States and Iraq were two guys stumbling in a dark room. Baker recited: Out of Kuwait, no bargaining. Aziz prattled of old Iraqi grievances, the Palestine-Israel impasse. (In a 45-minute news conference, he never said the word "Kuwait.") It was a dance of the deaf and blind.
But Baker and Aziz only reflect the cognitive dissonance of their bosses, two guys from different planets. That's my darkest suspicion -- if desert war erupts, it will be ignited because Saddam Hussein and George Bush are caught in their fantasies. Saddam, ego puffed enormously by world attention, visualizes himself a hero willing to blow up the Middle East for some Arab dream of pride and vengeance. "Saddam thinks he can take the first U.S. punch and prevail," said Foaud Ajami, a Johns Hopkins expert. "If he loses, he may still win politically."
You got a whiff of Iraq's -- and certainly Saddam's -- subterranean anger when Aziz blew his poise at Geneva. "When it comes to Israel, you are calm . . . But when it comes to the Arabs, there you raise the stick," he boiled. "And we are fed up with this policy of double standards."
If Saddam sees himself as an Arab messiah, Bush fantazises himself as a reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt, pre-World War II. It's intriguing that a friend, about the time of Iraq's invasion, gave Bush a book, "The Second World War," by Martin Gilbert. No coincidence that Bush, who brags publicly about the book, began calling Saddam "another Adolf Hitler" and comparing Kuwait to 1939 Poland.
"There's been nothing of this moral importance since World War II," Bush told TV interviewer David Frost last week. Privately, Bush compares his dilemma -- divided polls, carping Congress -- to the second-guessing Roosevelt endured trying to edge the U.S. toward fighting Germany. Thus, Bush's echoes of World War II rhetoric ("This naked aggression will not stand") and refusal to bargain ("We tried appeasement once, it didn't work").
As a 1990 version of FDR, Bush is a tinny imitation. His stubbornness about negotiating with Saddam -- why not a Middle East conference on Palestinians, or at least an 11th-hour Baker-Saddam meeting? -- may prove fatal.
Too bad somebody didn't give Bush a book on how John F. Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis. Maybe he would have mimicked how JFK quietly made a deal on U.S. missiles in Turkey that dodged nuclear war. But now we have a dialogue of the deaf. Saddam and Bush are trapped in a scorpions-in-a-jar ego battle -- one as Arab martyr, the other as FDR reborn.
Old men have fantasies, young men die. An old story.
Sandy Grady is the Washington correspondent for the 4 Philadelphia Daily News.