Negotiations, Arab style, offer end to fighting, but not peace


If peace should break out tomorrow, who will have won this war?

If Saddam Hussein pulls out of Kuwait tomorrow -- and don't hold your breath -- who would be the victor and who would be the vanquished?

America could claim victory. We would have accomplished the goal the United Nations set. Kuwait would be free (or at least as free as you can be under a monarch). Our oil supply would be safe. And the coalition of nations put together by George Bush would have every reason to celebrate.

But Saddam Hussein would still be in power. He would still be in control of an extremely wealthy country. His army would be largely intact. His air force could fly back from Iran. And after our embargo ended, he could use his oil wealth to buy new and better tanks.

So would Saddam really be the loser? Just what would he have lost?

A bunch of his people killed? He has plenty of people.

A bunch of his buildings and his bridges blown up? He can build new ones.

A loss of prestige? No, not even that.

Though Saddam has no prestige in America -- to us he is a dictator, a monster, a Hitler -- in some parts of the Arab world, he is a hero.

Standing toe-to-toe with a superpower coalition for a month has made Saddam a legend in the Middle East. And you can't go very far wrong in the Arab world by dropping Scuds on Israelis.

So surrender for Saddam Hussein does not necessarily mean defeat for Saddam Hussein.

Which is why it was no accident, I think,that George Bush called for a military coup against Saddam on the same day Saddam made a "peace" overture.

Even though the United Nations resolutions under which we fight say nothing about toppling Saddam, Bush knows that any peace that leaves Saddam in power might be no peace at all.

Though Saddam's peace proposal on Friday was labeled a hoax by the White House, at the United Nations a number of Arab ambassadors were electrified by it.

You have to understand Saddam's mind, they said. You have to understand the Arab way of bargaining. Though Saddam may have many ridiculous conditions now, he might give them up one by one in a negotiation.

I once saw this process in action. In the Old City of Jerusalem, in an Arab shop, I once took notes on the bargaining over a rug. There was a lot of polite talk. Tea was drunk. Sweet cakes were consumed. Families were discussed. And though both sides started with ridiculous positions (one price way too high and one price way too low) they eventually reached a compromise.

It took more than five hours.

Which is why Americans are so bad at such bargaining. Who has the patience for it? When we go into a store, we ask the price, and if it is ridiculous, we leave.

Saddam's peace proposal is ridiculous. His conditions are nonsense. And so America is leaving it.

Some leaders, however, including the secretary general of the United Nations, think we should not be so hasty. They think we should recognize that in some parts of the world this is the way business is done.

Henry Kissinger called it "slicing the salami." Each side starts out on either end of the salami and by making very tiny, very thin cuts, they approach the middle.

But why should we negotiate? The war has been going very well for the United States and our allies. Our losses are low and the enemy is being pounded.

The Iraqi army is being made to suffer so much -- being underneath a B-52 during a bombing raid is just about as horrendous as life can get -- that George Bush hopes it will quit the field of battle and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

And this would be far better than a negotiated peace. This would be better than Saddam's withdrawal from Kuwait.

At the Pentagon briefing following the Iraqi peace proposal, Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly got into an area he knew he probably should not get into.

Kelly is a military man, and he carries out policy, he does not set it. But when asked if he would favor a bombing pause while peace was being negotiated, he didn't duck the question.

"I would recommend against a bombing pause because it would give them an opportunity to regenerate and could result in dead Americans in the future," Kelly said.

And that was that.

Why Saddam is now talking about peace is anybody's guess. Some say it is because we bombed a bunker that contained civilians and now he is worried we will flatten Baghdad.

Others say, no, he doesn't care if we flatten Baghdad, actually he hopes we will flatten Baghdad because that will make him a martyr. He is making peace feelers, they say, because he knows the ground war is coming soon and he wants to delay it.

In the end, it probably does not matter why Saddam is now talking peace.

Because we are not going to slice the salami with him. Not when the peace it would bring might be worse than the war.

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