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COLUMN RIGHT : Dutiful Pawns Aren't Getting the Message : Bush seeks allies abroad because he has so few at home.

December 09, 1990|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is a visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution

The chess analogy is hard to avoid in analyzing the conflict in the Persian Gulf. What are we to make of Saddam Hussein's latest move? Superficially, his promise to release the hostages looks like a forced retreat and a gain for President Bush: a tacit acknowledgement that the Western powers mean business. This is the interpretation of Secretary of State James A. Baker III. ("It seems to me no coincidence that this comes just one week after the international community has authorized the use of force.") It might also show that sanctions really are working. At the same time, however, Hussein's move is likely to strengthen his position on the international board.

True, Bush will now be able order the Air Force to attack without having to worry about hurting the hostages. But the grounds for launching such an unprovoked assault will look more untenable than ever. If the hostages are released, Hussein will have removed one of the principal reasons cited by the Administration for going to war.

More generally, Hussein's promise greatly complicates Bush's melodramatic scenario, in which the United States is pitted against a maniacal Hitler holding hostages. Incidentally, the analogy with Hitler does not hold up militarily. Hitler launched blitzkriegs. Hussein moves with a more instinctive cunning. In the wild, animals sometimes deter predators by baring their throats and "appealing" for mercy. If he releases the hostages, Hussein will have bared his throat. Instinctively, he is appealing to world opinion.

One of the main differences between the two men seems to be that Hussein understands how to use the media. Whenever he releases hostages, the media work for him. "Cynical manipulation," retorts Bush, who can't seem to pull off the same trick. In his early morning press conference last week, when he announced that Baker would be going to Baghdad, the President seemed to go out of his way to show that he was on a first-name basis with leading members of the press corps. It would be entirely in character if Bush believed that this was how you got your message across: First you make friends with the movers and shakers in the media.

That's not the way the system works, of course, but Bush's approach to foreign policy seems to be based on the idea that personal contact is what counts. You make friends with heads of state, get to know their idiosyncrasies, maybe invite them out to the golf course. And precisely because they are heads of state, they can then deliver the support of nation-states, whole and entire.

That, no doubt, is why Bush is said to prefer foreign to domestic policy. He seems to think that in foreign affairs, factional disputes can be finessed. But if fighting does break out, that will turn out to be an illusion. All heads of state will have to grapple with powerful anti-war factions in their countries. These factions are likely to grow much more powerful after the hostages are released.

It has been noted with great irony that an aggressive U.S. foreign policy for once enjoys more support in foreign capitals than it does in America. In due course, no doubt, we will learn the full story of how Bush and Baker won the support of some countries through promises of foreign aid (that is, government-to-government aid), or threats to cancel it. Such coalitions are likely to prove fragile indeed.

Bush is seeking allies abroad because he has so few at home. He has collected paper resolutions with all the zeal of an autograph hound, but the irresolute quality of these resolutions is betrayed by the frequency with which they are repeated. One is reminded of the ineffective schoolmaster's repeated calls for order. Last week, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 678. It "reaffirmed" others too numerous to mention, starting with Resolution 660, all of them "noting that" and "mindful of" and "determined to" and "acting under" and "demanding that," all passed since August.

Hussein's gesture will increase the pressure on the Administration to negotiate a non-military solution in the gulf. Hussein could possibly resolve all remaining difficulties soon by pulling out of Kuwait. But if he does not, life is likely to become more difficult in the months ahead for Bush. The problem is that his repeated and strident insistence that Hussein must leave Kuwait cannot be justified by any principle beyond woolly-minded talk about a new world order. This, no doubt, has great appeal for heads of state--the "international community" as Bush and Baker are pleased to call these worthies. But it has little appeal for average folk, who are expected to be dutiful pawns on this grandiose chess board, some of them, if necessary, laying down their lives for the cause of "regional stability."

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