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COLUMN LEFT : Compare the Prices of War and Talk : The hawks bellow that Bush has blinked. Well, good for him.

January 06, 1991|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

The scene is now set for a potentially constructive negotiation between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, even as the war party in the United States bellows that President Bush has blinked, that appeasement is in the air and that Iraqi aggression is being rewarded.

Bush did blink, and rightly so. Ten days ago the White House was still issuing hardball rhetoric. Proposals for Bush/Aziz or Baker/Hussein encounters were presented purely as an opportunity for the United States to emphasize its no-compromise stance on a face-to-face basis.

This stance took its toll, first on Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who announced a week ago that Americans were yet to be persuaded that the President had tried everything to ensure a peaceful solution to the crisis; next on Germany, which pressed its European partners for an emergency meeting to seek negotiations.

By midweek the White House was still in hardball mode. It confirmed to Newsday reporter Knut Royce that it had indeed received a new Iraqi peace offer of withdrawal from Kuwait on four conditions: that the United States would guarantee not to attack retiring Iraqi forces; that foreign troops withdraw from the region; and that moves be made toward a solution to the Palestinian problem and the removal of all weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological) from the region. No mention, be it noted, of the Kuwaiti islands of Warba and Bubiyan, or of the Rumaila oil field--all previously items of contention.

The White House said it regarded this offer as unacceptable since it still attached conditions to an Iraqi withdrawal. But the very next day, on the eve of the meeting of the European ministers, the United States made its offer to Iraq of a Geneva meeting between Baker and Aziz, with the indication that such an encounter could be the basis of a genuine dialogue. Iraq then agreed on a Jan. 9 encounter.

Call it blinking if you wish. Another way of putting it is that Bush and his advisers took another long look at the realities of the situation and the abyss toward which they were headed.

However appeasing and foolish U.S. policy toward Iraq may have been before the Aug. 2 invasion, few would dispute that the initial U.N. action, urged mainly by the United States, was sensible: economic sanctions kept in force until Iraq abandoned its illegal occupation of Kuwait.

But by the end of August, the announced strategy of the United States underwent a change. Urged on by Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Bush's rhetoric veered toward assertions that it was not simply a matter of withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq's military power had to be reduced and Saddam Hussein himself driven from power and haled before a war crimes tribunal.

These demands, the sort imposed upon a defeated foe, had been urged by two groups with diametrically opposing motives. The first, diplomats and politicians in the region, wanted a peaceful solution but argued that only tough talk would persuade Saddam Hussein to head for home. The second group, led by Israel and its U.S. lobbyists such as Henry Kissinger and the columnists William Safire and A. M. Rosenthal, saw war as the preferred option and the only way to destroy Iraq as a regional power.

Clearly, Iraq decided that if withdrawal from Kuwait would be rewarded by the bombing of Baghdad, why bother to leave?

The bellicose U.S. strategy culminated, on the diplomatic front, with the U.N. Security Council resolution in November assenting to the use of force as an option if Iraq did not quit Kuwait by Jan. 15. The turn of the year brought the fateful tempo of an endgame, with a terrible war as the apparently inevitable conclusion. Now Washington seems to have realized that Iraq really would fight, if not offered some sort of negotiation.

So if war was to be the sole consequence of being hard-nosed, then why not first sit down and talk seriously?

Talk about what? The sticking point has always been some sort of linkage to the Palestinian problem, in the form of a conference on security in the region following an Iraqi pullout. The U.S. war party says such a conference would "reward" Iraqi aggression, but there is absolutely no doubt that if Iraq were to withdraw from Kuwait tomorrow a conference would be necessary, since the regional balance has changed and the occupations of Lebanon and the West Bank are ongoing testaments to instability and injustice. If a conference on the future of the region is desirable, why not commit to one now, or in Geneva?

The alternative is to go to war, in order not to have a conference, in order not to talk about Palestinians. This is what the hawks have always wanted. Is it a price Americans are prepared to pay?

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