Turning Diplomacy Upside Down



WASHINGTON — Washington

SOME 73 YEARS ago, President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points for peace after World War I called for a diplomacy of "open covenants . . . openly arrived at." It was a fine principle, but what the world has been treated to by the Bush administration's diplomacy-by-television in the Persian Gulf crisis has been a ludicrous, even grotesque, distortion of that idea.

The spectacle of Secretary of State James Baker and President Bush parading out before the television cameras after Mr. Baker's marathon private meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and in effect continuing the debate, was a measure of how far the Bush administration has gone to undermine traditional diplomacy as the country moves to the brink of war.

On one front, Mr. Baker's building of an international coalition -- against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and behind strong United Nations resolutions to force its withdrawal -- was brilliantly handled. But since its construction, the president has used that coalition as a diplomatic veneer for what essentially has become a U.S. military confrontation with Iraq in place of real diplomatic effort, with the United States by most calculations providing at least 75 percent of the forces on the U.N. side.

Ironically, there were warnings when the coalition was being constructed that it would tie American hands against unilateral actions. That has not proved to be true as Mr. Bush, basically on his own, has changed the nature of the mission from a defensive one, to bar further aggrandizement by Saddam Hussein while choking his country with economic sanctions, to an offensive one with his massive troop buildup.

Mr. Bush's actions, without the stealth, are comparable to President Lyndon Johnson's unilateral decision to escalate the American involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1964 after the controversial reports of enemy attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin on two U.S. destroyers. At least in that episode, Mr. Johnson went directly to Congress for the blank check it unwisely gave him. Only now, at the 11th hour, has Mr. Bush gone to Capitol Hill, when the situation has advanced so far that voices raised in caution inevitably will be painted by some as unpatriotic or worse.

At the same time, the president has turned traditional diplomacy upside down, attempting to break Saddam Hussein with tough talk over television while sending him a diplomatic letter telling him he means business, as if Baghdad were on some distant planet without outside communications, with Mr. Hussein himself locked off in some isolation booth.

The notion, repeatedly advanced by Mr. Bush, that Mr. Hussein, for lack of hearing it directly from him somehow, "doesn't get" that the American president isn't bluffing, would be laughable if it were not the cornerstone of a mindless hurtling toward war.

While trying to bluster the Iraqi strongman out of Kuwait and declaring there will be no negotiations, Mr. Bush has also dismissed out of hand the notion of something that has always been a bedrock of effective diplomacy -- back-channeling, or the use of third-party negotiators working in strict secrecy to break through what cannot be achieved by the principals.

Yet it should be abundantly clear from what Mr. Aziz said after the Geneva meeting that Iraq is not going to crumble to the United States, and cannot afford to without losing face in the Arab world. The only hope now is that Mr. Hussein will deal with some other low-profile back-channel diplomat or with Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar as the legitimate spokesman for the United Nations, agreeing to quit Kuwait for explicit or implicit understandings that other regional disputes will be discussed later. If that happens, it will be hard for Mr. Bush to proceed unilaterally to war.

Absent such a development, however, it seems clear now that the president has not only painted Mr. Hussein into a corner, but himself as well. The essence of diplomacy is communication and negotiation. In limiting himself to doing both only with his allies, while proffering only a rigid ultimatum to his enemy, Mr. Bush is not practicing diplomacy. He is practicing irresponsibility.

In the even more fearful Cuban missile crisis of 1963, President John F. Kennedy clung to communication with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, directly and through whatever back channels were available, including an American newsman, to move the world from the brink. It can only be hoped that President Bush, his denials notwithstanding, has not hung up the phone on Baghdad, or anybody else who can talk Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, before the bloody task of shooting him out is begun.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for TheEvening Sun. Their column appears there Monday throughThursday.

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