Bush Caught Twixt Senate and Saddam

PRESIDENT Bush's Gulf strategy is in danger of being trapped in a pincer movement, as congressional Democrats come at the policy from one side and Saddam Hussein maneuvers against it from the other side. The recent Senate hearings began as another chapter in the unending saga of legislative versus executive prerogatives, including the president's right to commit the nation to war, but they quickly developed into a full-scale attack on the administration's Persian Gulf policy. Politics as usual.

The Democratic leadership, cloaking a political straight-edged razor in a bouquet of constitutional issues, sliced into the administration, cutting its momentum sharply in the aftermath of the UN Security Council vote and the announcement of Secretary Baker's proposed meeting with Saddam Hussein. Because the republic is not threatened in any immediate sense, the time is ripe for the taking of some political advantage - or so many Democrats think.

For a party that has been adrift for two decades, the crisis in the Gulf offers the Democrats a chance to denounce an unpopular foreign ``adventure'' and decry the lack of progress on domestic matters.

Beyond the fact that the nation is slipping into recession, the cost of military operations in the Gulf will largely prohibit the administration from addressing the issues - housing, unemployment, health and drug abuse matters, transportation - that form the Democratic platform. Over time, the Gulf crisis has the capacity to galvanize the disparate elements of the Democratic community into an energetic coalition as in the Vietnam era.

Time is the most important single variable, for none of these developments would occur if hostilities erupted and ended with Iraq's defeat in two weeks.

But Iraq won't be defeated so easily. Although no Nazi Germany, with its modern army and 80 million people, Iraq has two trump cards, either one of which could yield Saddam Hussein his objective of leading the Pan-Arab movement.

First, there is strategic withdrawal, which has already begun. In this scenario Saddam Hussein, having freed all foreigners, agrees to pull back to Iraq in return for an island port in the Gulf. It would be hard to retain UN support for a military solution in these circumstances. Should this gambit succeed, Iraq will have faced down the US, retained its awesome military arsenal, and demonstrated American inconstancy to those Arab states allied with Washington. The humiliation of those states - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco - would be acute.

The second trump is planned if the talks fail. Call this scenario strategic assault: Draw Israel into the conflict, making it a Zionist/European/American fight against Iraq. Read: Judeo-Christian versus Muslim. The moderate Arabs would be unable to participate in the allied force without a surge of fundamentalist fervor in Cairo and Damascus. And so Saddam Hussein would be seen carrying the flag against the infidel in a war that must have a negotiated solution or risk a true regional firestorm.

It is in this context that the secretary of state travels to Baghdad. If Baker's discussions with Saddam yield anything less than full Iraqi compliance with the UN resolutions (for example, if Saddam withdraws from Kuwait except for access to the Gulf and certain oil reserves), the White House will confront the difficult task of elevating the discrepancy to a matter of principle. Bush will give emphasis to themes like ``aggression can't be rewarded'' and ``we're at a crossroads in history for the region'' and must obtain stability now or face certain conflict later.

But neither Franklin Rossevelt's eloquent appeal to principle nor Churchill's ringing urgency brought America into World War II; war for Americans began with Japanese bombs. Saddam is unlikely to give Bush a comparable provocation to use force.

And so the question remains: Who has whom by the tail? Saddam Hussein may have maneuvered the Bush-Baker team into its tightest corner yet.

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