WASHINGTON — CHECKED by overwhelming international reaction, Iraq's Saddam Hussein may be beginning to believe that he has blundered into a dead-end crisis that can be escaped only through retreat. A number of recent Iraqi actions indicate something less than a hard-line confrontational approach, say United States officials and private analysts. They include agreement to Thursday's meeting between Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz and UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, and apparent reversal of orders for Iraqi oil tankers to run the US-led naval blockade or die trying.
The Bush administration is in no mood to play the suitor with Saddam Hussein, however. Officials believe they have begun to gain the advantage in the Gulf standoff, particularly now that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has publicly rebuked his onetime Iraqi ally. Hence the decision to boot a busload of Iraqi diplomats out of the US, in retaliation for the detention of US diplomats from Kuwait City.
Iraq's attempts at moderation may be genuine, or they may be tactical ploys to gain time. ``I don't particularly see more hope now,'' said President Bush Monday when asked whether a diplomatic settlement seems possible.
Still, an almost irrational optimism about the Gulf crisis swept Washington, as well as world financial markets, at the beginning of the week. UN Secretary General P'erez de Cu'ellar's impending trip was one reason. Another was the safe passage of the most dangerous potential flashpoint so far: Iraq's deadline for closing embassies in Kuwait.
At this writing a skeleton staff in the US Embassy in Kuwait City remained surrounded, and diplomats from the embassy who had tried to leave at last Friday's deadline were still being detained in Baghdad. But both sides seemed to be trying to avoid having the diplomat deadlock escalate into shooting.
``I'm more optimistic with the passage of each day that there is no armed conflict,'' says John Duke Anthony, president of the National Council on US-Arab Relations.
Whereas last week the gray eminence of US foreign policy experts, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was talking darkly about the possible need for surgical air strikes, this week he was advising that slow and steady economic squeezing might yet win the race for the US. Saddam's now-infamous hostage home video, plus his protestations that the West has spurned offers of negotiations, were seen by many as the acts of a man who is feeling some heat. National security adviser Brent Scowcroft said in a TV interview that Saddam ``is casting about for a way out of the box in which he finds himself.''
The Bush administration welcomed P'erez de Cu'ellar's Thursday peace mission. But officials took pains to emphasize that the US was not using the UN as a back channel for its own negotiations, and that P'erez de Cu'ellar would likely be speaking from the text of UN resolutions on the crisis, which call for an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
At this point such a position would be a difficult one for Saddam to swallow, considering that he has told his population that Kuwait has been transformed into southern Iraq. One fig leaf, proposed in a New York Times editorial that was widely discussed in Washington, might be allowing Iraq to bring its claims on Kuwaiti territory before the World Court.
Saddam might well not find this appealing, even as a fig leaf. Besides likely losing his own claim, he would open himself up to territorial counterclaims from Iran, says Charles Winslow, a Middle East expert at a joint Indiana/Purdue University campus in Indianapolis.
As an inducement for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, Mr. Winslow suggests a sliding Gulf Cooperation Council oil-production tax that would redistribute some wealth from nations with large per-capita incomes, such as Kuwait, to poorer Arab nations.
That way Saddam could ``say to the Arab world that his confrontation was not in vain,'' Winslow says.
Other difficult points sure to arise in any Gulf talks would include whether the Emir of Kuwait was to be placed back on his throne, or whether some sort of elections should be held instead; and what sort of guarantees against further aggression by Saddam would be adequate if he is to remain in power.
Of course, as of now ``we've got no reason to believe we've got serious negotiations going, period,'' says Barry Rubin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Aziz-P'erez de Cu'ellar meeting in Amman, Jordan, is likely to be nothing more than theatrics, Mr. Rubin says. It might be some time before enough pressure has been applied for Saddam to begin seriously casting about for negotiations.
``This thing could go on for months,'' Rubin says.