Maneuver before Midnight

January 16, 1991

France's attempt to link a Middle East peace conference with an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, even as the clock ticked toward the midnight war deadline, exposed a troublesome vulnerability in the U.S. diplomatic position. The French maneuver was taken unilaterally, much to the irritation of Washington, London and, perhaps, Moscow. It could give Saddam Hussein a chance to pose as a hero of Islam willing to "sacrifice" his claims to Kuwait in the interest of forcing the Israeli-Arab conflict to the forefront of the international agenda.

As this is written, the Iraqi dictator has rebuffed even this opportunity. But until President Bush gives the order to attack (which could come at any time, even before the delivery of this newspaper), there is still a chance he could opt for what U.S. policy-makers admit is a "nightmare scenario."

Not "nightmare" in the sense of the carnage war would bring. But "nightmare" in the sense of confounding the U.S. position that Mr. Hussein must get no rewards, no concessions, no face-saving for his rape of Kuwait. It could be difficult for Mr. Bush to press the war button if Mr. Hussein at the last-minute embraces the French formula and announces at least a partial pullout. He could then claim he has established the "linkage" between the Israeli and Kuwaiti questions that the United States has refused to countenance.

If Iraq remains adamant, inviting Armageddon, France would not have lost a thing through its gratuitous gesture. Instead, it would have established its ability to align Germany, Belgium and some other European countries behind a policy that is characteristically defiant of the United States. It would have pretended to the Arab world that it was the most sympathetic of any of the Western powers. And it thus would have set up France to play a bigger role in the Middle East whatever the outcome of the Iraqi crisis.

Since Napoleon's day, France has sought a preeminent role in the Muslim nations of North Africa and the Middle East. It grabbed Algeria as a colony, won a World War I mandate over Lebanon and Syria. It has long been Iraq's chief arms supplier (aside from the Soviet Union), selling the Baghdad regime sophisticated weapons worth $5 billion between 1980 and 1989 and lending it $4.6 billion over roughly the same period. Its 3 million Muslim residents make France both a bridge to the Islamic world and a nation endemically fearful of terrorism. France's vision of its future self includes full participation in a Middle East peace conference in accordance with what French President Francois Mitterrand calls the obligations of "one of the world's major powers."

Such a power, however, ought to ponder what its world will look like if international borders go up for grabs, if strong regional bullies can capture weaker neighbors, if the post-Cold War era is plagued by an unending series of crises and war.

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