Saddam Hussein's refusal to yield in the face of the formidable forces arrayed against him has led many to speculate he must be counting on a last-resort ploy that would allow him to emerge victorious from the confrontation.
Secretary of State James Baker has voiced the suspicion that he might declare at the last moment that he is willing to withdraw from most of Kuwait's territory, and, by thus trivializing the remaining issue at stake, undercut the Bush administration's ability to resort to war to secure full compliance with U.N. resolutions.I believe Saddam is, indeed, banking on a last-minute ploy. But he is too clever to make it center on his seeking territorial concessions: Opposition to such a move can readily be mobilized on grounds of principle and of upholding U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Instead, Saddam's likely ploy would be different - and much more formidable. Sometime around Jan. 15 he might declare he was prepared to withdraw completely from Kuwait within a specified short period of time - provided the Security Council called for a prompt international conference to settle the Palestinian problem.
Saddam's point would not be to salvage gains for the Palestinians out of a failed venture in Kuwait but to try to accomplish two other things: first, to serve the ultimate objectives he had in mind in invading Kuwait; second, to frustrate all the objectives of the U.S. intervention. The ploy could work and put the United States in a no-win situation.
The United States recently had a hard time finessing a move to have the Security Council call for an international conference on the Middle East, even when that move was made by parties that offered nothing in return. Let us assume the administration rejected any linkage of a pullout from Kuwait to a conference and went to war to achieve unconditional compliance with U.N. resolutions.
Saddam would then be able to argue he was being attacked by the United States not on account of Kuwait, which was no longer an issue, but because he insisted on the Palestinians' rights. He could argue that Arab governments that supported the United States under such circumstances were accomplices in its war against the Palestinian cause.
If Washington, however reluctantly, agreed to the linkage for the sake of its Saudi and other Arab allies, Saddam would thereby immediately score a major political victory as the effective champion of the Palestinian cause. That success would give him enormous leverage in the negotiations that would follow concerning the withdrawals of his forces and foreign forces, whose continuing presence the Saudis would no longer be able to justify.
Furthermore, much as the Saudis and other Arabs might like to see an imposition of controls on Saddam's arms, they would be hard put to act on that wish once his forces came to be seen as serving the Palestinian cause. Without explicit Saudi support, the United States would be unable to maintain a credible military presence in the region or effectively enforce any sanctions as part of an arms control program.
The net result would be that Saddammight get out of Kuwait, but he would leave in a position to realize the goals for which he had gone in. He would emerge as supreme Arab leader, in possession of massive means of coercion, and in a position to dictate oil and other policy to his neighbors and much of the Arab world.
(Nadav Safran, emeritus professor of Middle East studies at Harvard, is author of "Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security.")