IF George Bush expects his Persian Gulf strategy to succeed without war, he is bucking long odds. By moving to an offensive military posture, and pressuring UN Security Council members to approve the use of force against Iraq, Mr. Bush has adopted a strategy of escalating coercion to force Saddam Hussein to choose between war and unconditional surrender. But a growing body of research by social scientists indicates that ``bullying'' strategies, like that being applied by the US against Iraq, are more likely to lead to war than to submission by the other side. In crises between nations, coercive threats beget other threats. Like a poker game in which the pot grows as each player raises the ante to out-bluff the other, the stakes, in terms of national prestige and reputation, escalate along with the threats and counterthreats.
The crisis becomes a competition in risk-taking until the only options left are war or surrender. When stakes get that high, few leaders choose surrender. The pattern can be seen again and again in a sample of 50 crises occurring over the past century and a half, which I have studied to investigate the relationship between crisis bargaining and the outbreak of war.
If a war is fought in the Gulf, there is little reason to expect it will end in a quick US victory. As Korea and Vietnam showed, the key to prevailing isn't the capacity to inflict punishment, but to endure it. Endurance is a function of motivation, and a population is most highly motivated when attacked. Ultimately, the US would prevail, but the costs and risks would be high.
Among the risks are a wider war including Israel that could demolish the Arab coalition against Iraq, and Iraq's use of chemical, or even nuclear, weapons in a desperate last stand.
There is a safer and surer way to achieve our objectives in the Persian Gulf. The same research that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of bullying tactics indicates that the most effective approach to crisis bargaining is a ``firm-but-fair'' strategy. This strategy combines: (1) firmness in the face of aggressive or threatening actions by the other party, (2) avoiding threats of offensive action, and (3) a willingness to respond positively to significant concessions from the other party.
The initial US-UN response to Iraq's aggression - the defense of Saudi Arabia coupled with an economic blockade - was consistent with a firm-but-fair strategy. Then Bush lost his patience and switched to a bullying strategy of escalating coercion.
IT is difficult to move from bullying back to a firm-but-fair approach, particularly for a president already under attack for lacking direction and consistency. But it can be done if Bush is willing to use a little creativity. In fact, an excellent opportunity has been provided by Saddam Hussein's release of the hostages.
To implement the ``fair'' component of a firm-but-fair strategy, Bush should announce that the US will not initiate military action against Iraq in return for completion of the hostage release, and so long as the unity of the UN blockade holds. The president should state that, once all hostages are released, he will reduce US forces in Saudi Arabia to those necessary for defensive purposes and that the US will frequently rotate its troops to eliminate time pressure for attack or withdrawal.
These actions would reassure allies concerned about impulsive military action and reduce public pressure to ``fight or bring the boys home.'' The president also should state that the US has no intention of allowing the blockade to cause the starvation of innocent Iraqis, and that sufficient food and medical supplies will be allowed to insure survival, regardless of the length of the blockade. This eventually would be demanded by other members of the UN coalition, so it would be wise for the president to take the moral high ground now.
The ``firm'' component of this approach is to make it clear to the Iraqis that the UN blockade will be maintained - for years if necessary - until Iraq leaves Kuwait. The longer the blockade persists, the more impoverished Iraq will become and the more its military strength will dissipate as equipment breaks down, supplies are depleted, and morale declines. A tough, but humane, UN blockade also offers the advantage of directing the wrath of Iraqi citizens to where it belongs, at Saddam Hussein, rather than being channeled into a determined defense of their homeland.
Finally, a firm-but-fair strategy requires the willingness to respond positively to significant concessions from the other party. Virtually all crises that end peacefully require some negotiation, including some face-saving concession to the losing side. This is not a question of what that side deserves, but of the least costly way to achieve one's objectives.
There are ways to provide face-saving concessions without rewarding aggression. For example, an agreement could be reached whereby, once Iraq's forces have left Kuwait, economic assistance to recover from the effects of the blockade would be provided in return for the dismantling of Iraq's chemical and nuclear weapons facilities.
Unlike the bitterness and instability that would follow a war, the successful implementation of collective security without war would provide an enormous boost to the United Nations, as well as to US relations with Arab nations. To argue that we cannot afford the costs of a long-term commitment to a humane blockade is absurd when those costs are compared to the loss of life, American and Iraqi, that would result from a military offensive.
By renouncing war in favor of a firm-but-fair strategy in the Persian Gulf, and by devoting his energies to developing the unity and patience to maintain the blockade, George Bush could truly help lay the foundation for a new interational order.