BOULDER, COLO. — With war seemingly imminent, the last best chance for peace is a negotiated exit for Saddam Hussein and his inner circle. Indeed, this very moment - with the threat of a devastating US and British military attack - offers the best opportunity yet to persuade him to leave Iraq peacefully.
If Mr. Hussein did go, it would be an extraordinary victory. The US and British threat of military attack would have succeeded without war. Tens of thousands of lives would be spared, and hundreds of billions of dollars would be saved. The rift between the major powers could be mended and the integrity of the UN Security Council would be preserved.
Is it possible? Hussein told CBS news correspondent Dan Rather last month: "We will die in this country and we will maintain our honor in front of our people."
But Hussein also told Mr. Rather he wouldn't destroy the Al Samoud 2 missiles - yet he started to do so within days.
Saddam Hussein is homicidal, but he is not suicidal. A man who surrounds himself with 3,600 guards, changes sleeping places almost every night, has 20 dinners prepared so as to confuse possible assassins places a premium on his own survival.
The world is full of ex-dictators who swore they'd never leave peacefully - yet did. Think of Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Uganda's Idi Amin, and Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile-Mariam. Think of Gen. Raoul Cedras, who relented only when the US invasion of Haiti had begun.
Hussein is not the psychological type to retire. Yet, as a man dedicated to the "revolutionary struggle," he has in the past recognized the practical need, on occasion, for tactical retreats in the service of a long-term strategic advance.
If Hussein could imagine himself living to fight another day - at the helm even of a self-styled Iraqi government-in-exile, depriving the US of the prize of occupying Iraq and its oil - then his all-consuming thirst for power might just urge him to take the exit option. He could even portray it publicly as a victory just as he did with his utter defeat in 1991.
In a recent speech to his commanders, Hussein made a tantalizing reference to the ancient Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh: "The king gave up the helm and left his senate leading the country till his coming back." While Saddam's "coming back" would clearly be unacceptable, the challenge is to make a genuine exit as attractive as possible.
If Hussein, his family, and his government were offered haven in Syria, Libya, or elsewhere ... if Saddam were offered immunity from war-crimes prosecution as Secretary Rumsfeld has publicly suggested ("a fair price to pay to avoid a war") ... if the Arab League and the UN were willing to take temporary control of Iraq, as proposed by Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, then just possibly Hussein might say "Yes."
Of course, Hussein has a history of miscalculating. If his past is any indication, he might not seize the chance until the bombs were actually falling. Therefore, it would be wise to establish in advance a reliable communication channel impervious to "e-bombs" and to put on the table an operational, reliable, and attractive offer for Hussein to accept that would not require any negotiation but the simple word "yes."
The chances of success? No one can know. But the moment might come when, faced with the choice, Hussein might find government in exile in a Libyan beach resort attractive compared to death, or trial by an international tribunal. The US needs to make the road to that resort as easy as possible.
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu counseled 500 years ago: "The acme of victory is not to win a hundred battles but to win without battle." That is the prize we need to seek.
• William Ury lives in Colorado and directs the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He is coauthor of 'Getting to YES' and author of 'Getting Past No: Negotiating With Difficult People.'