JAMES BAKER spent seven minutes among the Kurds clinging to the mountainsides on the Turkey-Iraq border. That exposure to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Saddam Hussein's wrath, brief though it was, should be enough greatly to increase American efforts to do something about the tragedy. But will it be? Was the secretary of state's quick visit to the dispossessed Kurds a serious attempt at fact-finding and understanding, or was it a politically necessary side trip to show that, yes, the United States cares? Every planeload of food from the US and elsewhere is valuable, but much more will be required to prevent continued cruelty and loss of life.
The idea of a ``haven'' in northern Iraq for the Kurds before they can return to their homes is being pushed by the European Community. This is a chancy, short-term proposition at best, but worth a try. How would it be enforced - by military force? Whose?
More immediately, the US and other UN Security Council members could dispatch Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to Baghdad to demand that attacks on fleeing civilian populations be stopped and that much-needed extensive relief efforts not be hindered.
And if the Iraqis refuse to cooperate? The Security Council has the cease-fire provisions, the sanctions, and the threat of renewed use of force. And Saddam should know by now that such means will be used.
From his drop-in on the Kurds, Baker flew to Israel to sample the climate for peace. Prime Minister Shamir's government had just announced the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners and tax incentives for businesses in Gaza. Foreign Minister David Levy said Israel is open to a one-shot regional peace meeting co-chaired by the US and the Soviets.
Hopeful signs, certainly, but critical issues like Palestinian representation at such a gathering are far from resolved. The Palestinians are leery of the whole idea, and the Syrians have expressed doubts. What the Arabs are looking for, in vain, is any indication that the Shamir government will ever yield an inch of land in the cause of peace.
As with its assertion of concern for the Kurds, the Bush administration has to prove that the president's endorsement of ``land for peace'' can lead to action. A clear test is at hand: US firmness in opposing current plans to expand Israeli settlement in the occupied territories.