Peace or War

January 14, 1991

Now that a divided and deeply troubled Congress has given President Bush authority to go to war, the moment approaches when Saddam Hussein must decide whether to get out of Kuwait or risk the destruction of his military regime. The closeness of the 52-47 vote in the Senate plus American-Soviet tensions over Moscow's crackdown on the Baltic republics should add to the Iraqi dictator's apprehensions. For Mr. Bush clearly is under pressure to act quickly before his domestic support erodes or his international coalition unravels.

The United Nations deadline tomorrow is a "real deadline," says Mr. Bush, and there is no reason to doubt his resoluteness. That gives would-be peacemakers -- especially the French -- very little time to avert a bloody catastrophe in the Persian Gulf. U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar concluded two hours of conversations with Mr. Hussein Sunday saying "God only knows" what is going to happen. He is to brief French President Francois Mitterrand this morning, and the Paris government does not exclude a last-minute trip to Baghdad by Mr. Mitterrand or his foreign minister.

France has long been willing to "link" an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait with the convening of a Middle East conference to take up the Arab-Israeli conflict -- an approach trumpeted by Baghdad, deplored by Washington and flatly rejected by Israel. Nonetheless, a vague undertaking for negotiations on Middle East issues could give Mr. Hussein sufficient pretext to claim victory and retreat.

Given the mixed message from Capitol Hill, the president could hardly push the war button in such circumstances. Yet he would still be confronted by an Iraqi regime that is in possession of weapons of mass destruction, virulent with hatred for the West, burning with a desire to rule the Arab world and pledged to the destruction of Israel. Clearly a return to the status quo ante would not be enough. If aggression is not be rewarded, Iraq must emerge weaker, not stronger, from this frightening episode.

Problems abound. Soviet cooperation with Washington is suddenly in question, jeopardizing the superpower partnership that has been instrumental in bringing international pressure on Iraq. And while Mr. Bush tries to put a favorable spin on Congress' reluctant endorsement of the use of force against Iraq, there is no denying the legislative branch engaged in the kind of "hand-wringing exercise" the president once said he does not want.

Nevertheless, he is commander-in-chief, with his constitutional authority reaffirmed. While he should strive valiantly for peace, President Bush has to take care not to allow others to appease the aggressor in a way that would create greater dangers and ominous precedents for the future.

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