Endgame in the Gulf WAR IN THE GULF


President Bush's assertion that the Moscow peace initiative "falls well short of what would be required" is more a dismissal than a rejection. The Persian Gulf crisis has reached a point where huge stakes hinge on small nuances, where distinctions make a difference.

The Soviet Union puts forward a plan for "unconditional" Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait that apparently includes one key condition -- survival of the Baghdad regime. The United States has both stated war aims (Iraqi withdrawal) and unstated war aims (Saddam Hussein's overthrow), and has assembled the military might to enforce both.

As a result, the situation has become almost a race between an Iraqi pullout -- this time really without strings attached -- and the launching of an American-led ground war against Iraqi troops softened up by five weeks of incessant air attack.

With the Soviet Union now maneuvering to save Saddam Hussein's regime (and perhaps his skin) while the United States becomes more and more determined that he must be ousted from power, Mr. Bush faces excruciating questions: Is a ground war in pursuit of the unconditional surrender of the Baghdad military regime worth the casualties it will bring? If Iraq emerges from the present struggle with its military machine still capable of threatening its neighbors, will all the efforts and sacrifice of the past six months have been in vain? Will Saddam Hussein and his top officials be so discredited by their Kuwaiti debacle that nothing can save them, whatever assurances Moscow may offer?

Mr. Bush's response may hinge as much on military as on political calculation. Former President Jimmy Carter fears a ground war will be "long and destructive," leading to fragmentation of the coalition and destabilization for the Middle East. But Mr. Bush, if we read him right, believes a ground war will be quick and decisive, bringing a clear-cut allied victory that would put the United States in a far stronger position to pursue a "new world order" in which the Persian Gulf would serve as prototype. The latest Soviet gambit indicates the region remains a cockpit for superpower rivalry.

If the signal for a ground attack comes, we have to hope that Mr. Bush's evaluation proves far more accurate than Mr. Carter's. The evidence appears to be on his side.

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