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Bush shouldn't lock himself into a war with Iraq

President Bush and Secretary of State Baker are trying, as they must, to bring maximum psychological pressure on Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. The danger is that they may paint themselves into a corner from which they can escape only through a bloody and ill-conceived war against Iraq.

In separate speeches _ Bush's at a campaign rally in California _ they delivered the same message: "We will not rule out a possible use of force if Iraq continues to occupy Kuwait." And both heightened the goosebump effect with lurid tales of Iraqi atrocities.

Almost simultaneously, however, Mikhail Gorbachev declared flatly that "it is unacceptable to have a military solution to (the Kuwait) question" _ a position that emphasizes a major weakness of war as a deliberate option:

It would be a Western war, primarily an American-British war, begun by a decision in Washington, against an Arab nation or nations.

That's because a calculated attack on Iraq almost certainly would make Hussein a martyr as well as a hero in the Arab world, and shatter the East-West-Third World alliance that has made possible such an impressive collective-security effort against further Iraqi aggression.

Soviet support would be sacrificed, and that of even the allied Arab nations could not be relied upon.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Hafez Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt no doubt want to see Hussein brought down.

That does not mean that the sentiments of their Arab populations would permit them to join in a Western war on another Arab nation; if they did, popular opposition could prevent them from making a major military effort, or from sustaining it for months, perhaps years. If Hussein responded to war by attacking Israel, as he probably would, other Arab nations would be far more likely to join than oppose him.

All that would be bad enough in itself. It also would dash the promising beginnings _ it's not too much to say the bright hope _ of a post-Cold War world in which the United States and the Soviet Union would cooperate in international arrangements to maintain the peace.

Such cooperation, building on the remarkable collective-security success already achieved under American leadership, could well be the most important result of the Middle East crisis _ unless, of course, it ends in war directed from Washington.

That war, it should also be remembered, would result in devastating casualties for United States forces, the real possibility of a long deadlock rather than a glorious victory, domestic political division on the same scale as in the Vietnam years, and disastrous financial and political diversions from far more pressing American problems at home and in the world.

But, reasonable people ask, if Hussein won't get out of Kuwait, how can his aggression be allowed to stand? And how can the issue be negotiated without in some way rewarding him for that aggression? Wouldn't negotiation amount to appeasement?

No. To leave open a line of retreat for an opponent, to make compromise possible for him, is not necessarily to reward him. If Hussein believes he has no alternative except ignominious surrender _ which an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait certainly would be _ war might be preferable to him.

But if he knows through Arab channels that withdrawal could bring about whatever he and other Arab leaders could agree upon to address his legitimate complaints _ and he has some _ the continuing pressures of boycott and embargo might cause him to seek such an end to the confrontation on the Saudi border.

The way then would be open for collective-security efforts to contain any threat of future Iraqi aggression, even to impose international controls against Iraqi development of nuclear and other exotic weapons.

Impractical? No more so than the alliance Bush already has assembled in the desert, particularly if the United States and the Soviet Union stand together in the effort.

As for the ghosts of appeasement, this is not 1939, Iraq is not Nazi Germany, Hussein is not Hitler, and George Bush need be neither Chamberlain nor Churchill.

Hussein needs to be convinced of American resolve, but he is not the only one who needs a line of retreat. Too much presidential talk about waging war may persuade too many Americans that war is not only inevitable but necessary, and leave Bush no other way out of a corner he painted himself into.

New York Times News Service