RARELY has a single day's meeting between diplomats been so important, or so closely watched by so much of the world. Inevitably, the fact that United States Secretary of State James Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz are sitting down today to talk in Geneva has raised hopes that there might yet be a peaceful way out of the Persian Gulf crisis.
But while a compromise settlement to the crisis is certainly possible, it seems more likely the talks will be characterized by communications, not negotiations.
Both sides will be attempting to convey a complex message, aimed at a larger audience than just each other.
Mr. Baker will likely reiterate to Mr. Aziz the US willingness to use force, implicitly telling the US Congress and United Nations allies that now is not the time for divisive debate or multiple peace propoals.
Aziz will probably be stalling for time, emphasizing Iraqi moderation and desire for peace in an attempt to split the opposition front. The overall goal for the US is to keep the issue simple for Iraq: Withdraw, or there will be war within days. Aziz, on the other hand, might be trying to open protracted negotiations which Saddam Hussein could use to confuse the issue.
``If there is a proposal-counterproposal cycle, Saddam wins,'' says Ray Tanter, a University of Michigan political scientist and former National Security Council staff member.
In recent days the run-up to the Geneva meeting has been marked by preliminary rhetorical skirmishing. Touring European capitals en route to Switzerland, Secretary of State Baker has continued to insist that there isn't any dealing going on that the public does not know about, and that the US is not going to use the talks as an opportunity explore compromise solutions.
``There is really nothing to negotiate,'' Baker said Monday, though he did add somewhat coyly that ``I'm not going to tell you that we don't anticipate that there might be some surprise coming out of this meeting.''
Saddam Hussein, for his part, took the opportunity of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Iraq's Army to give a saber-rattling speech warning darkly of upcoming battles. ``Victory is near,'' he said. Then, on Monday, a high Iraqi official said that as far as his country is concerned the centerpiece of the coming talks will be Saddam Hussein's proposal to link the Gulf crisis with the issue of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
This Gulf-Palestinian ``linkage'' has been often rejected by US officials. They insist that Saddam isn't so much serious about solving the Palestinian question as he is about dragging in any issue capable of delaying the resolution of the Gulf crisis beyond the point the UN coalition can be held together.
America's European allies, however, are less dogmatic on this question. The French peace plan endorsed by the European Commission (EC) last Friday implicitly linked an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to settlement of the Palestinian problem. It proposed an international conference to try to settle all outstanding Middle East conflicts.
Baker flatly said this week that the US opposed the French plan, and that in any case Iraq has now refused to meet with EC foreign ministers after today's Geneva talks.
But ``linkage'' could remain a profitable line of inquiry for the Iraqis, especially in regard to the French, who consider President Bush to be marching far too quickly toward war.
ASENIOR US official, briefing reporters in London on Monday night, said ``there may be any number of issues that will still need to be discussed'' after Iraq leaves Kuwait.
Whether that gesture by the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, satisfies the allies or Saddam remains to be seen.
US officials say they do want to keep up the cohesion of the anti-Iraq alliance. They claim that, toward that end, delay is an enemy. That is why Baker and British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd took the time this week to reject any move to postpone the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw or face military force.
If the US agrees to overlook the deadline and enters into negotiations with Saddam over the terms of a Gulf settlement, the danger is that the haggling can easily become endless if one party wants it so, says Professor Tanter of the University of Michigan. Once the deadline was passed, the world's sense of urgency could diminish. And the UN coalition could begin to break up.
``The political legitimacy Bush has for the use of force would begin to go down,'' says Tanter.
Still, despite all the pitfalls and the posturing, it is possible that something meaningful could happen between Baker and Aziz in Geneva. Five months after the Iraqi invasion, it has only become more difficult to tell what is substance and what is smoke in the rhetoric of both sides.
One sign of subtle diplomatic progress from the talks might be a toning down of US war talk, without abandonment of the upcoming deadline. Charles Winslow, an Indiana University expert on Iraq, says Bush could say that ``while the US is allowed to use force after the 15th, it is not committed to do so'' right away.