Whether Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq or is removed along with his militaristic regime has emerged in this showdown war week as a seeming difference between the United States and the Soviet Union.
President Bush has made it clear he wants the Iraqi dictator deposed even though this is not a specific war aim bearing the imprimatur of the Security Council. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's heralded peace plan reputedly would permit Saddam Hussein's survival for the moment, perhaps even in a situation where his country would be spared the reparation payments it surely owes Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Much -- perhaps too much -- can be read into this dispute. Moscow is undoubtedly trying to shore up its sagging prestige by intervening in peace-making after avoiding participation in the war-making it sanctioned. It is natural, too, that it would want a prominent role in postwar Middle East security matters, and may look upon Iraq as an old ally worth cultivating.
But the Soviet Union, in our view, needs the Western democracies a lot more than it needs a defeated and discredited Iraqi dictator. While Mr. Gorbachev's latest diplomatic gambit may placate his frustrated military establishment and Communist reactionaries, it hardly distracts the Soviet peoples from the breakdown of their economy, the unraveling of their country and the hardships of their daily lives.
In these matters, only the West can help, which may explain why Moscow spokesmen see only positive elements in Mr. Bush's bluntly negative reaction to the Gorbachev peace plan. Is it too much to hope that Americans are playing bad cop and Russians good cop as they seek the apprehension of the Baghdad badman? Secret communications between Washington and Moscow may well focus not on Saddam Hussein's personal survival but whether it will take a land war or just the pressure of circumstances to get rid of him.
Mr. Gorbachev has approved not only Security Council 660, which simply calls for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, but 11 other resolutions which, if enforced, would make Mr. Hussein's position untenable. One holds Iraq liable for "any loss, damage or injury arising in regard to Kuwait or third states." Another calls for "international peace and security in the area," a catch-all phrase that assuredly would require severe limitations on Iraqi's future military prowess.
Though Mr. Gorbachev's tactics should be viewed with suspicion, he cannot be faulted for seeking a solution that would save American lives. The deadline for a ground war is at hand. As the climax comes, superpower coordination to remove Saddam by other means would surely be welcome.