Day of Deadline

January 15, 1991

So is it to be war after all? A war without precedent in its stage-set amassing of armor, its CNN diplomacy, its dissection by all manner of analysts and ideologues before a shot has been fired in anger? With the approach of Zero Hour at midnight tonight, the United States and Iraq seem to have crossed the line where there is little chance of an accommodation both sides can accept with honor.

Or have they?

President Bush knows his position will never be stronger than it is at this instant. His mighty armies are poised in the Arabian desert. His mandate for war has been painfully approved by Congress. Public opinion is with him, albeit fretfully and fearfully. He has little need to offer his enemy anything more than a fig leaf -- and a transparent fig leaf at that. Not for him even a breath of dishonor.

Saddam Hussein faces the more troubled fate of an aggressor overextended. His dream of being the new Nasser, the hero who would unite the Arab peoples, can be achieved perversely, if at all, only in defeat and destruction. The danger is that this may be more preferable to him than the humiliation of retreat, despite his reputation as a survivor.

Reports from Egypt say there is still a belief in Cairo that the Iraqi strongman will deal, but only after 11.59 p.m. tonight -- or some time thereafter. It is a view shared by top Kuwaiti diplomats in exile and in sync with last-minute probes for new openings by Iraq's alley, Yemen. But it is a view now disputed by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who said he had lost hope for peace after a fruitless two-hour meeting Sunday with Mr. Hussein.

As the remarks on the page opposite from members of the Maryland delegation in Congress illustrate so well, Americans cannot even pretend to have precise insight on the intentions of the Iraqi dictator. What they must do is weigh the murky options of taking military action now if Mr. Hussein does not blink, or marking time in the hope that military action will not be required later under less favorable circumstances.

If America goes to war, it will do so with less enthusiasm and more foreboding than ever before in the nation's history. It will do so united behind our men and women in the battle zone, but full of Vietnam-inspired misgivings. A terrible burden rests on President Bush to end the conflict quickly if it comes, and to achieve the kind of peace that will dissuade future aggression.

This newspaper believes the time for a showdown may be at hand, but we do so sadly, reluctantly, without bravado, convinced that America's mission of world leadership requires, in President Bush's words, that "we will do what we have to do."


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