Soviets and the Gulf

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PRESIDENT Bush's extensive talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the Soviet Mideast peace initiative last week were reportedly conducted with the kind of patient cordiality that should typify US-Soviet relations as the Gulf war draws to an end, and after. Iraq is just beyond the Soviet doorstep. Moscow has an interest in mediating a final Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and thus ending the crisis. It is in the US interest, and the world's interest, to keep the Soviet Union as an agreeable partner in restoring stability to the Gulf region.

There is some sentiment that Gorbachev's peace efforts have been an attempt to undermine US gains in the Gulf. Indeed, the Soviet plan put quite a scare into Washington last week.

Given the money, time, effort, blood, and coalition-building that the US has put into the confrontation with Saddam Hussein, it would be ironic if Gorbachev ended up with credit in the Gulf region and elsewhere for making peace.

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Yet Washington must give Gorbachev the benefit of the doubt. It would have been a genuine diplomatic coup had the Soviet leader been able to extract Saddam from Kuwait under a timetable acceptable to Washington before the ground war began. Gorbachev tried to work with Britain and France. Such efforts fit well in a ``new world order.''

While Gorbachev's initial bid to deal himself and his interests into the Gulf effort failed, his mediating role remains. The White House must and will do all it can to keep relations with the Soviets amiable, though it is hard to imagine a large direct role for the USSR in Gulf peace talks. The Soviets didn't invest money, men, or material in the war.

Concern that the Soviets will play to the ``Arab street'' in the postwar period, hoping to gain capital from anti-US sentiment there, is not unfounded. But what have the Soviets to gain? Such efforts would be transparent and divisive (perhaps what Soviet hard-liners would like). But it would hurt them in the Arab states that will emerge from the Gulf crisis with enhanced clout.

A new world order includes Moscow. As the war winds down, Mr. Bush should reschedule that canceled February summit.

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