President Bush has turned the heat up another notch under Saddam Hussein, and that's all right. His whopping new deployment of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf makes it appear that war with Iraq is more likely. But it is also just possible that this massive increase in firepower will finally convince Saddam that it would be suicide to hang on to Kuwait.
Since a war with Iraq could bring dreadful consequences, and since the status quo is not damaging the U.S. position, little is to be lost by letting the standoff continue.This cautious view is being heard from several foreign governments that have supported the tough United Nations resolutions demanded that Iraq leave Kuwait unconditionally. China, the Soviet Union, France and Eqypt have all cited the perils of war and warned that the embargo should be given ample chance to work. Even Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commanding the American forces, has warned somberly that war could prove disastrous to the region's long-term balance of power.
The tense deadlock along the border of Kuwait has become essentially a war of nerves, with Saddam and Bush each probing and testing the other's staying power. In such a standoff, victory usually goes to the side having the necessary discipline and patience to wait out the siege. The U.S.-led coalition has such resources; Iraq may not.
What has made this crisis especially unsettling is the unclear linkage between means and ends. Bush has kept up a pugnacious series of verbal warnings and says the deployment of more forces will give the United States a needed "offensive option." But it remains unclear whether he would be satisfied with just ousting Saddam from Kuwait, or would insist on crushing the Saddam regime and its warmaking potential.
The paramount goal, as this frightening episode grinds on, must continue to be the unconditional removal of Saddam and his army from Kuwait. This goal is not only just, as a matter of law, but it is the goal the United Nations Security Council has overwhelmingly endorsed in several resolutions. For the U.N. coalition to waver would be for the U.N. to abandon all claims to credibility for future peacekeeping efforts.
At the same time, it is crucial the United States and its allies keep their common front intact. If the coalition buckled, the legitimacy of the embargo operation would collapse.
Similarly, the U.S. must be confident that the anti-Saddam Arab forces are prepared to share the initial brunt of the fighting, if war should come. The Islamic world is dubious enough about the West as things stand, even without a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq. Under the best conditions, an offensive against Saddam would ignite havoc across much of Islam; but the political damage could be contained if at least some Arab states remained aligned on the American side.
The argument for patience rests on the hope that more pressure will cause Saddam to back off. It also is at least theoretically possible that he might be toppled from within. His decision to dismiss his army chief of staff, who is said to have opposed the invasion of Kuwait, suggests dissent within the Iraqi officer corps.
Waiting things out may be the most difficult option of all for Bush. The coalition may fray as time drags on. American troops are restless and bored with their uncomfortable situation in the desert, and by next spring the approach of pilgrimages to Moslem holy cities will add another dicey complication.
It would be a grave blunder, however, for the United States to attack Iraq before every plausible diplomatic avenue has been explored. Saddam may be ruthless, but he presumably is neither crazy nor suicidal.