Bush plays to the crowd on politics today


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to "go the extra mile" and send Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad is first and foremost a recognition of domestic political realities.

Bush took great pains to make it clear that his purpose in dispatching Baker to see Saddam Hussein -- as well as in agreeing to meet with the Iraqi foreign minister -- is not to open negotiations that could lead to anything less than Iraq's full and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. "It isn't a trip of concessions," he said of the proposed Baker mission to Saddam, "When you do what he's done, there's no room for concessions."

The president rationalized his change of heart on direct talks by making an argument that Saddam might be so isolated that he doesn't fully understand the seriousness of the demands that have been made on him by the United States and the latest United Nations resolution. But that was an obvious cover story. Saddam, like so many world leaders today, has learned to play the diplomatic game on Cable News Network.

The initiative was, nonetheless, a potentially significant one in showing a new awareness on Bush's part to the burgeoning concern at home about using the military option that the U.N. now has approved. The idea of some direct talks with Saddam has been gaining increasing credibility in the past 10 days, particularly since it was advanced forcefully a week ago by Rep. Lee Hamilton, the highly regarded Indiana Democrat who is the second-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

By adopting the idea, Bush is saying, in effect, that military force remains an option but that he will do whatever may be necessary -- to take "the extra step," as he said repeatedly -- to make it an option that does not have to be used. The implication is plain that the ball is now in Saddam's court.

The theory of those who have advocated sending an emissary to Baghdad is that it would be a gesture that Saddam might see as face-saving -- the world's greatest military power paying proper deference to an Arab state that, for all its bluster and menace, is not a world power by any stretch of the imagination. Given the adamant defiance Saddam has shown up to this point, that notion may seem far-fetched. But the Arab leaders have always been very good at claiming success where there is little justification for doing so.

Bush's decision came at a time when there was increasing talk of solutions other than a military assault on Iraq.

Some experts believe there might be a way out if Saddam withdrew from Kuwait and the predominately U.S. force in Saudi Arabia were supplanted by one more obviously operating under United Nations auspices. That approach would have the beauty of allowing Bush to reduce the U.S. presence without himself appearing to lose face.

Others have suggested the answer might lie in convening a conference to discuss not the whole Palestinian question, which Saddam has tried to link to his invasion of Kuwait, but only the quarrels between Iraq and Kuwait. That option would be possible, some diplomats say, only if Kuwait's deposed leaders were willing to initiate it. But it could provide a cover for Saddam in withdrawing his forces.

The bottom line, then, is that all the scenarios for a settlement in the Persian Gulf are based on the premise that Saddam first withdraws from Kuwait and frees the foreign nationals he holds as hostages. And Bush has not yielded an inch in his insistence that this is the first requirement.

On the other hand, the president has seemed careful lately about what he says about Iraq's nuclear capability -- in sharp contrast to his rhetoric and that of administration spokesmen who seemed to be hinting only 10 days ago that even if Saddam abandoned Kuwait the U.S. might be obliged to destroy Saddam's potential for making nuclear weapons.

At the time, the use of the nuclear issue seemed to be a reflection of opinion polls that showed concern over those weapons to be the one reason Americans were most willing to follow a hard line in the Persian Gulf. The White House was, in effect, playing to the crowd.

The same may be the case with the Baker-to-Baghdad initiative. There is no national consensus for a military strike that would cost heavily in American lives. But there is always a consensus for negotiations -- even if they are not called that.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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