War is not inevitable

Anthony Lewis

January 14, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

CAIRO, EGYPT — SADDAM SAYS that he will win," President Hosni Mubarak said. "The man is living in another world."

The Egyptian president sounded ready for a military resolution of the Persian Gulf crisis. A war would last "a couple of days," he said, "or a couple of weeks at most."

He said Saddam Hussein talked as if he faced conflict with "Yemen or Djibouti," when in fact he was up against a superpower, the United States.

But despite the tough talk -- and the failure of the Baker-Aziz meeting in Geneva -- Egypt has not written off the possibility of a peaceful solution in the gulf.

In Mubarak's government, there is still some feeling that Saddam could switch signals at the last moment and start pulling Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. A high official said:

"War is not inevitable. It can still be avoided. Saddam is capable of change even now. There is a streak of logic in him. Even though he's sometimes off the track, he's not a lunatic."

If in fact there remains a chance of Iraqi withdrawal, why would Saddam leave it to these last few tense days? Because, it is suggested, he knows the tactics of the bazaar -- and enjoys the tension he is causing. The same official said:

"In the end we're all just sitting here waiting to see if his mind can change. A single individual is controlling the destiny of so many people. It seems to me that this must be giving him a lot of satisfaction."

Those who believe the Iraqi president may still pull back see a scenario like this: The United Nations secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, goes to Baghdad.

More salve for Saddam's ego, and probably another no from him. But then, in the final hours before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline, he agrees to an "Arab solution" with diplomats from Algeria, the PLO or wherever.

The point of such a scenario is that a withdrawal from Kuwait labeled as an "Arab solution" would be a bit of a face-saver. Saddam was least likely to agree to back down in a meeting between the American secretary of state and his foreign minister.

The substance of a possible settlement could be glimpsed in the remarkable press conferences given by James Baker and Tariq Aziz after their meeting.

Baker said Aziz had made the "implicit" suggestion that Iraq might withdraw from Kuwait if the United States agreed to an international peace conference on the Palestinian and other Middle East issues. Baker reiterated U.S. opposition to such "linkage."

The question was then put to Aziz: Would Iraq agree to leave Kuwait if there were an international conference on the Middle East?

"I did not put it that way," Aziz said. He went on with a woolly answer about how, if the United States were ready to respect "justice and fairness" throughout the Middle East, "you will find us very cooperative." He never mentioned the word Kuwait.

Suppose instead that Aziz had offered a direct and candid bargain: If the United States agrees to an international peace conference to resolve Middle East issues, including the Palestinian question, Iraq will withdraw from Kuwait.

The United States would still oppose linkage -- because, Baker said, aggressors "should not be rewarded for their aggression." But could the U.S. go to war in order to block a Middle East peace conference? Would its coalition allies conceivably agree?

If war is to be avoided, it will probably be by some variant of that arrangement. Iraq will have to withdraw from Kuwait, "persuaded" by its Arab friends. The United States will have to indicate, without making a deal, that it will not stand in the way of an international conference.

Of course all this is only a hope. Saddam could be calculating that he can say no to the end, because America will not fight. If so, he is making a disastrous mistake, one that will take many down with him.

Mubarak has Egypt's two best divisions in Saudi Arabia, a total of 27,000 men, and they will fight if and when the Americans do. He is obviously angry at Saddam, who misled him about Kuwait.

But he told a group from the 21st African-American Conference: "I hope that at the last minute he will change. Nobody wants war."

Baker projected the same feeling in his press conference. He was dignified, serious, regretful -- and still holding out hope against hope that there will be no war.

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