HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE — In the uncertain theater of gulf politics, the signals sent by both sides are confusing and difficult to interpret. They will become more so. Should war prove unavoidable, efforts now to seek a negotiated settlement will diminish the chances that Saddam Hussein will be seen as an Arab martyr rather than an isolated, self-aggrandizing tyrant.
President Bush's willingness to send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad for talks with Hussein and to meet Iraq's foreign minister in the White House still offers a major opportunity to create new outcomes to the crisis. Yet it is no longer possible to see just Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait as a real solution. There must be linkages to other festering issues in the Middle East, even if these links are formally denied. In the eyes of Hussein's Arab friends and foes, the offer to talk is the first public sign that the White House is serious about exploring alternatives to war.
Allowing Hussein an exit at this point would be neither appeasement nor a reward for aggression. The words and actions of both Bush and Hussein have become charged with symbolic meanings and practical consequences beyond the issue of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Even Hussein's enemies concede his enhanced stature: He has stood up to the United States, whose vacillating policies (including those involving Iraq) are viewed with suspicion by many in the region; rekindled debate over the future of Israel's occupied territories (an outcome that even Hussein's Arab enemies welcome), and focused attention on the instability caused by vast inequalities between rich and poor Arab states.
For Bush, the confrontation with Iraq defines the practical limits of America's role in the post-Cold War era. The United States and its allies can "win" any confrontation with Iraq but only at the price of sustained future political losses--unless the Arab public is convinced that every alternative to war has been pursued.
Less certain is our skill in achieving a negotiated solution on the seemingly intractable issues that will come under discussion. As past dealings with Iran show, the U.S. track record is uneven in its use of intermediaries and in tolerating apparently ambiguous outcomes. The delivery of a Bible and a cake to Tehran by Robert C. McFarlane and his associates in May, 1986, provides only a bizarre example of our shortcomings in understanding Middle Eastern traditions of honor, face-saving and negotiation.
From an Arab point of view, Bush's offer to talk constitutes more than a face-saving gesture. It concedes nothing but publicly acknowledges Hussein as a worthy adversary, one who can be persuaded instead of humiliated and despised. In Middle Eastern terms, Hussein's reputation remains intact so long as he can claim to work for a worthy collective cause. He may privately be considered dishonorable, but it is public claims that count, and his reputation as a dangerous person effectively silences the contrary opinions of those within his reach. We must separate the causes that Hussein represents, often opportunistically, from the person and not deny the justice of his avowed causes because we dislike the messenger.
Sudden reversal of tactics does nothing to lessen Hussein's prestige, so a peaceful solution with no loss of face among his Arab public, the only public that counts for him, is still possible. His prior reversals, the most recent of which is his unconditional offer of peace with Iran and the relinquishment of his meager gains from a debilitating war, need not be explained in personality terms alone. Such a turnabout may seem surprising to Westerners because of our obsession with undying friendship, unconditional surrender and lasting peace. For Hussein's Arab audience, the essence of human affairs is provisionality. In changed circumstances, only a fanatic would stick to the same course.
Without fanfare, several Arabian peninsula countries, for example, have recently agreed to demarcate their frontiers after decades of bitter disagreement. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Oman, Saudi Arabia's reason for agreeing to a settlement was the unification of the two Yemens, a threat that may come to the fore once the crisis on its northern frontier abates. Settlements in the Middle East range between truces to agreements for "all time," in the Western sense. They are the best that mortals can achieve. Both sides anticipate betrayal and the reversal of loyalties but do their best to make the price of reversals higher than the cost of continued compliance.
Consider Hussein's labeling of Western and Japanese hostages as "guests," an Orwellian term even to Iraqis. In the world of the Iraqi leader's youth and in some parts of the Arab world today, the taking of hostages from adversary groups is a means of preventing violence until intermediaries can negotiate a settlement.