A last chance for quiet diplomacy What's next: Efforts to let both sides claim some form of victory

January 13, 1991|By Frank Starr | Frank Starr,Frank Starr is chief of The Sun's Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — Washington--WHAT REMAINS NOW is the serious diplomacy. And the diplomats have until Tuesday midnight or thereabouts to produce, at the very least, the promise of results.

Not that Wednesday's grim meeting in Geneva between the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, and the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was not serious. It was. But given the rigid positions taken by each side, it was also unlikely to produce a breakthrough. What it accomplished was necessary face-saving for both.

As James Zogby, executive director of the Arab-American Institute, said, "We [Americans]stood tall. He stood tall. Now we can leave it to other players" to find a solution.

And the solution, if one is to be found before shooting starts and if common diplomatic practice is a guide, will allow the principal players to claim that they achieved their main goals even where those goals seem mutually exclusive.

For the United States it will require withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, restoration of the pre-invasion government of Kuwait and a plan for enough international military presence to protect Kuwait from attack.

For Iraq it apparently requires an international conference on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or, better, assurance that a Palestinian state will be created, and settlement of Iraq's border disputes with Kuwait.

Since the United States rejects outright the linkage between the Palestinian issue and Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, such a settlement by definition would have to be achieved without American involvement, though perhaps with Washington's tacit acquiescence. Geneva cleared the way for others to try.

The public focus now is on United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who has the blessing of the Bush administration and the European community but is thought unlikely to depart from the provisions of the U.N. resolutions. These do not address the chief Iraqi demand: an international conference to resolve the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mr. Perez de Cuellar has said he may offer a U.N. peacekeeping force, made up of troops from countries that have not joined the anti-Iraq coalition, to move into Kuwait after an Iraqi withdrawal. Beyond that, the U.N. diplomat can use his considerable moral authority to convince Mr. Hussein that he indeed faces overwhelming force unless he withdraws.

In the quieter precincts of traditional diplomacy, there is discussion of ways to give Saddam Hussein what he needs to justify a withdrawal to himself and his followers. Many of the Europeans -- especially the French and Germans -- while portrayed as solidly part of the U.S.-led coalition, differ sharply with the United States over the possibility of agreeing to a post-withdrawal Mideast peace conference.

The United States opposition to this idea stems from two sources. Its ally Israel has said it will not be dictated to by an international conference. Secondly, although the U.S. does not oppose an international effort -- after withdrawal -- to resolve the broader issues, it opposes linking that effort with the withdrawal because it believes that would appear to reward Mr. Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait.

The Americans argue that the objective of the invasion was to strengthen Iraq by taking over Kuwait and that the Palestinian justification was not mentioned until August 12, 10 days after the invasion, and was raised then only as a way of rallying Arab support.

At week's end, the French foreign minister, Roland Dumas, was meeting with Arab ambassadors, including those from Iraq and Kuwait, reportedly to secure support for a European initiative. Even while Mr. Baker and Mr. Aziz were meeting in Geneva, French President Francois Mitterrand was telling a Paris press conference that he favored such a conference. Mr. Perez de Cuellar stopped in Paris on his way to Baghdad. But to be successful, such an effort would have to be done privately and quietly.

"Secret diplomacy," Michel Rocard, the French prime minister, was quoted as saying, "is in a state of extreme difficulty."

What has distinguished the early stages of this conflict is the public manner in which the debate has been conducted. Conducting it, especially the Iraqi-American part, publicly via Cable News Network interviews and press conferences, has demonstrated the enormous disadvantage a democracy encounters in dealing with a crisis.

President Bush, having rejected the linkage mentioned above, believed that his only chance of finding a peaceful resolution was to convince Saddam Hussein that Washington was absolutely willing to go to war. But to send that message to his adversary he had to send it as well to the American people. The more convincing he became, the more Americans -- and their politicians -- began to express doubts about fighting, thus undermining the message.

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