With its exquisitely timed peace plan to head off an allied ground assault against Iraq, the Soviet Union seeks to distance itself from the United States, play a major role in postwar Middle East affairs, refurbish its image among the Muslim masses and placate Communists unhappy with the Kremlin's rebuff to its old allies in Baghdad.
The Bush administration may have mixed feelings about the Soviet intervention, coming at a time when weather conditions and force readiness are near optimum levels for launching a ground war. But if Mr. Hussein accepts the Soviet demand that he withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait, the savings in American lives would compensate a hundred times over for any losses in the diplomatic power game. In addition, Washington surely knows the United Nations Security Council would never have approved the international use of force against Iraq without Moscow's policy turnabout.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's peace plan, if early leaks prove correct, attempts to give Mr. Hussein some reassurance about his personal fate. A Soviet spokesman told British television that "this man (Saddam) needs a kind of plan to save his face and at this stage it may be time to tell him maybe not he but his administration will survive." A German newspaper said the Gorbachev proposal would guarantee the state structure and the borders of Iraq, pledge Soviet resistance to any punishment of Mr. Hussein personally and put the Israeli-Arab dispute on the diplomatic agenda.
The Bush administration, in contrast, has made it clear that while the removal of Mr. Hussein is not a war aim, the U.S. would welcome his fall from power. It has also warned repeatedly that the Iraqi dictator would be held accountable for his rape of Kuwait, his mistreatment of foreign civilians and prisoners of war and other depredations. But the three stated goals of U.S. policy -- Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, restoration of the Kuwaiti government and stability in the region -- are not specifically contradicted in the Moscow plan.
Any real Soviet backtracking from its support of the anti-Iraq coalition could complicate the conduct of the war, the way hostilities terminate and, even more, postwar arrangements in the Middle East. When Moscow abandoned its promotion of Third World opposition to the West and, instead, joined with Washington in promoting a stable "new world order," this was as much a sign of the Cold War's ending as the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe. President Bush returned the favor by muting his protests over Mr. Gorbachev's crackdown on the Baltics. Now the superpower relationship is being tested again.
If the U.S. decides it can tolerate the Soviet initiative, it should give Baghdad a reasonable period to respond favorably. But the fighting edge of allied forces and their prospects for bringing a quick end to the war must not be forfeited.