HAVING tried economic pressure and the threat of military force, President Bush has adopted yet another strategy - 11th-hour diplomacy - to end the four-month standoff in the Arabian desert. Elaborating on his surprise announcement Friday that he would dispatch Secretary of State James Baker III to Baghdad, Mr. Bush insisted his only objective is to convince Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of his resolve to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
``It isn't a trip of concession,'' Mr. Bush told reporters at a nationally televised news conference in the White House.
Even so, news of possible face-to-face talks between the United States and Iraq - the first since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait - has sparked hopes of a peaceful settlement of the Gulf crisis. Behind such hopes lies the dark realization that if the talks fail, a costly war may be unavoidable.
``This rachets up both the `negotiate' and the `or else,' '' says a former congressional aide, now a Washington consultant specializing in foreign policy. ``If the talks fail, Bush will have increased his credibility with the public and Congress to go to war. It maximizes the pressure on Saddam.''
In his address on Friday, Bush said he would invite Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz for talks in Washington late next week. Bush then offered to send Mr. Baker to meet with Saddam sometime between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.
Bush's remarks were delivered just a day after the UN issued a historic ultimatum, threatening to use ``all possible means'' against Iraq if it fails to withdraw its troops from Kuwait by Jan. 15.
On Saturday, Iraq accepted the US offer. But it demanded that discussions be broadened to include Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Bush has said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be addressed but has refused to link it to resolution of the Gulf crisis.
Bush's proposal is expected to blunt criticism in Congress, many of whose members have urged the administration to allow more time for economic sanctions against Iraq to work. There also have been repeated calls for direct talks to alleviate the crisis.
The proposal for direct talks could also weaken the support Iraq has enjoyed from several Arab countries which, while opposed to the Kuwait invasion, have so far declined to vote against Iraq in the UN.
``Countries like Libya and Yemen will favor this,'' says the former congressional aide. ``They will say to Saddam, `Here's your chance to get out of this'.''
A visit by Foreign Minister Aziz could also set the stage for the first diplomatic contacts between Iraq and Saudi Arabia since just after the Kuwait invasion. Like the US, Saudi Arabia has said it will not talk to Iraq until after Kuwait is evacuated.
Despite Bush's insistence that ``face-saving'' is ``not what this is about,'' many diplomatic analysts believe face-saving is exactly what the call for direct talks is about.
``It's not possible that Bush would send his most trusted adviser all the way to Baghdad just to hand Saddam the UN resolutions,'' says one diplomatic source in Washington. ``He is giving Saddam an avenue to express his own concerns.''
Indeed, analysts say an exchange of visits could help remove one of the crucial obstacles to a peaceful settlement of the crisis - Saddam's perception that even if he relinquishes Kuwait the US will seek the destruction of Iraq.
Although not officially committed to that goal, many US officials believe stability in the Gulf region will be unattainable without Saddam's removal and the destruction of Iraqi military power.
One Arab official, requesting anonymity, says that under the schedule proposed by Bush, Aziz would have an opportunity to air Iraqi concerns in Washington which Baker could then address on his return visit to Baghdad.
``You have to give him figs to enable Saddam to withdraw and to save so many lives,'' the official says. ``One fig is reassurance that no one is going to go after him after he leaves Kuwait. The other is that Iraqi grievances are going to be looked at.''
One option, says the official: US support for negotiations to settle disputes between Iraq and Kuwait over oil and territory, once Iraqi troops are evacuated and all foreign hostages released.
Diplomatic analysts acknowledge that it will be difficult but not impossible to help Saddam save face without actually granting concessions to Iraq.
``Saddam should not profit from aggression but the US can advance diplomacy by clarifying that the future for Iraq will be better after it withdraws from Kuwait than if it stays,'' says Harvard law Prof. Roger Fisher, who has written widely on the conduct of diplomatic negotiations.
Some US analysts fear that, by hinting at a weakening of US resolve, Bush's proposal has offset Thursday's UN vote.
They say that however adamant Bush may be about not making concessions to Iraq, the mere prospect of face-to-face talks will send signals to Iraq and Washington's coalition partners that some form of compromise is possible. By raising hopes for a peaceful settlement of the Gulf crisis, the unintended effect of failure could be a negative reaction on Capitol Hill and a split within the anti-Iraq alliance.
``It was a mistake: The US gave an ultimatum, now it has backed away from it,'' says a government official who predicts that US coalition partners may now be encouraged to seek a compromise solution. ``Bush's speech makes it more likely that we will go to war, that we will go to war as a divided country, and that we will go to war with a divided coalition.''