Bush ultimatum is a gamble

Published Feb. 23, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

At last, President Bush seems to have seized Saddam Hussein by the throat and lifted him right up against the wall. Unless Hussein starts withdrawing from Kuwait by noon, has his last soldier out a week later and confirms all this out loud himself, the land war will start. Or, at least, so it seemed from Bush's tough Rose Garden ultimatum Friday, made with the apparent backing of all major allies. Maybe Mikhail Gorbachev isn't too unhappy to hear Bush demanding that Hussein personally confirm the deal Gorbachev concluded with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in the early morning, and go further. Bush would emerge as the hard cop, Gorbachev the soft cop.

Far more likely is that Bush leap-frogged Gorbachev only hours after the Soviet leader announced a plan that would have been his major diplomatic triumph by bringing about Hussein's peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait. Issued after Bush's ultimatum, a revised Soviet plan would give Hussein a cease-fire and a whole three weeks to get out of Kuwait.

Bush appears to have concluded that Gorbachev was trying to save the Iraqi leader by giving him a political victory he could not have won on the battlefield. Bush's ultimatum was a spoiler for Gorbachev. Who knows where the hectic Friday will leave Soviet-American relations when the smoke clears?

A calculation, or miscalculation, appeared to lie behind Bush's ultimatum. To give in to it, Hussein would be crying "Uncle" in the sight and hearing of the world _ his own people, his armed forces, the Arabs who saw him as their hero, the abandoned Palestinians.

The calculation may have been that if Hussein accepted, he would be doing what no Arab could do and survive. His people might get rid of him, and no one else would mourn. Already Palestinians are wondering why he has abandoned them.

The miscalculation, if it is that, may have been in believing that Hussein could ever accept an ultimatum. It would leave him with no real choice but to do what he has always boasted he would do, fight to the end against the greatest military power on earth, inflict all the casualties he can and be hailed by the Arabs forever more as a martyr who must be avenged in another generation.

In fact, the whole idea may have been to present Hussein with something he could never accept.

The danger in all this for Bush is that he and the major allies, with whom he spent much of the day on the telephone, will be seen as pushing the United Nations aside just when Gorbachev had opened the door to peace.

Events were moving so fast that again they threatened to seize control from the hands of the leaders who think they are making the decisions. By pushing a peace plan that seemed designed to save Hussein, Gorbachev may have provoked Bush into issuing his ultimatum. By burning the oil fields, Hussein gave Bush another opportunity to step in.

Bush has brought Britain and France at least along with him in issuing the ultimatum. By way of example, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas told a news conference that he had been on the telephone several times Friday with Secretary of State James Baker, and that President Francois Mitterrand had finished talking to Bush only just before the Rose Garden ultimatum.

Having participated in that decision, Dumas said France, of course, approved it. Beside him, France's new defense minister, Louis Joxe, was blunt. The beginning of the ground offensive was already "programed," Joxe said. It would come, he said, "in a few hours" unless, of course, Hussein gives in.

Behind the agreement on an ultimatum also were differences in emphasis, especially in France, about Gorbachev's peace plan.

While Bush saw that glass as at least half empty, France and others appeared to see it as half full. The Soviet Union saw it as positively brimming over. Israel saw it as empty. Others saw it somewhere in between.

The leaders of the U.S.-led anti-Iraq alliance were up most of the night and then spent much of the day on the telephone trying to adjust their reactions to the peace plan Gorbachev concluded with Aziz.

So began the fateful end game that could, in the next few days, involve a million or more men on the battlefield. It now appears certain. But we have been dazzled by so many shifts during the last few days that no one would want to exclude another one.

I flew home to Paris from Amman, hoping to pick up a visa here for Saudi Arabia. Apparently it's here, but I may not be able to get to it over the weekend.

My own calculation always has been that in case of a ground war, the best place would be with the allied troops fighting it, even though most reporters will be lucky to get within miles of them. If there's peace, the best place would be among the first getting into Baghdad.

The prize, however, would be to be among the first to go back to Kuwait.

Iraq's presence in Kuwait

Troops: 390,000 (as of mid-January; it is not known how many have been killed or wounded since.)

Tanks: 3,000 (allies claim to have destroyed 1,200 others.)

Artillery guns: 1,900 (allies claim to have destroyed 1,200 others.)

Armored personnel carriers: 2,000 (allies claim to have destroyed 800 others.)