WASHINGTON — SADDAM HUSSEIN'S foreign minister took in hand the letter from the president of the United States, read it carefully, and answered it in the most contemptuous way available to nations: He passed it back across the table, refusing to "receive" it.
The representative of the nation that reintroduced poison gas to modern warfare, used hostages as human shields and is now systematically pillaging its Arab neighbor -- this man was instructed to say that the tone of the communication from Bush was insufficiently polite.
So ended the "phony war."
After five months of wishful thinking in the West and ringing rhetoric in Baghdad, the regime in Iraq made clear to the world in the most insulting way possible that it is not about to give up its conquest of oil-rich Kuwait.
We can now clear our minds of self-delusion. This includes:
1. We are not communicating with the Iraqi leader; if only he knew of the firmness of the world's resolve, he would stop miscalculating.
The problem has never been lack of communication. As Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz made clear, Baghdad is well aware of what the world wants and what power the U.S. has in place to enforce its demands.
2. Give sanctions a couple of years to work, and economic strangulation will bring Iraq to its knees.
This satisfies those who want to do nothing but seem to do something; it dresses weakness in a tough jacket. Thus we hear "stay the course," and "tighten the noose"; in reality, the embargo is more annoyance than siege, and is already being breached by Iran, Jordan and the Soviet Union.
3. Saddam Hussein may be an assassin by profession, and responsible for two invasions and more than a million deaths to date, but he is not irrational; he will recognize the reality of superior power.
This foolishly projects onto him the view from our side. From his side, he sees the ground forces arrayed against him and assumes that we will wage his kind of trench warfare.
With the help of poison gas, he defeated a neighboring nation nearly triple his population. With more blood to expend -- and he is prepared to lose another half-million Iraqis -- he thinks the world's forces will tire and make a deal.
4. A compromise is easy to envision: give him a couple of islands as access to the gulf, plus a fig leaf of linkage to the Palestinian cause, and he'll be willing to pull out of Kuwait.
The woods are filled with pundits and diplomats certain of his willingness to withdraw under the proper inducement, but whenever the opportunity arises -- he concedes nothing. The "deal" is in the mind of the aggression-rewarders; in Saddam Hussein's mind, Kuwait is his 19th province.
5. We want a peaceful solution, and would be content with his withdrawal.
A peace (to which he shows no sign of agreeing) that would permit him to build long-range missiles and to equip them with nuclear, germ-warfare and chemical warheads is no peace at all but an invitation to a war in the mid-'90s at a high cost to the U.S. civilian population.
6. Once he sees we're serious, or united, or ready -- he'll cave.
A dozen U.N. resolutions, a deadline, an invisible Congress and implacable president, with massed troops and air power ready -- what further proof does he need? He knows what is coming, and he is not caving.
7. But he's not crazy -- he knows he'll lose; at the 11th hour, he'll become reasonable.
This is another bite at the rationality apple. If he cannot draw us into a long land war he faces the prospect of defeat, but by cloaking his land-grab in a pan-Arab cause, he sees martyrdom ahead. Never a religious man, he does not see this as a way to heaven, but his consuming ego envisions a Viking's funeral, with his nation the burning boat.
8. Air power has never won a war.
Give modern air power a chance to decide this war, with a two-front invasion on the ground from north and south in the final stages. Not all Iraqis are loyal to the dictator; we can encourage a Kurdish uprising and a military coup.
Because Iraq is the center of world terrorism, we must expect counterattack from that quarter, but we are moving now to prevent terrorists from gaining nuclear arms.
The spurned letter means the time for self-delusion is over. Let Congress express its resolve in a resolution. And let the White House make public the undelivered mail: The world should read the message that was too direct and forceful for the tender eyes of Saddam Hussein.