TALK about a Mideast peace conference is growing. While some hope that such a conference will offer a raison d'sortie for Saddam Hussein, thus averting war, the US fears that it will be interpreted as a concession to Saddam and thus a reward for aggression. There is a way, however, that the US can establish the agenda for such a peace conference so as to make it a coup rather than a concession. The US could insist that the agenda not only include the Palestinian issue, but also the prospect of a regional disarmament regime - including weapons of mass destruction. The implicit rationale would be the disproportionate military forces arrayed against Israel. The US could even make it a condition for the conference that all participants, especially Iraq, indicate their willingness to pursue such a regime.
If this condition would be accepted, it would be a boon for American interests as well as for regional security. If arms reductions are achieved, Iraq, due to its disproportionately large military, would be required to make some of the greatest reductions. This would help reduce the possibility that Iraq could continue to threaten the region after withdrawing from Kuwait.
Even if this seems like a fatuous hope, pursuing such a conference would be worthwhile. If there is a general acceptance of the linkage between regional disarmament and the Palestinian issue, Saddam will be put in a position to either cooperate in disarmament or risk being held up as the obstacle to resolving the Palestinian issue.
Saddam could not even count on avoiding such an embarrassment by Israeli resistance to such an idea. Israel has recently expressed interest in regional disarmament, even indicating a willingness to put its nuclear weapons on the table. This is not surprising given that its forces are relatively so small that any disarmament regime would call for much greater force reductions to Israel's enemies; Israel's strength has always been in its military skills. With reductions in the military threat to Israel, it may indeed be willing to accept greater sovereignty for the Palestinians. In the short run, Israel may at least be more ready to join a Mideast peace conference in which their intransigence would not be the only agenda item.
Some may argue that even if a peace conference would be potentially beneficial it would be unacceptable for Saddam to have a claim that he achieved a concession as a result of his aggression against Kuwait. Such thinking approaches the problem in an overly personal fashion, stemming from the understandable desire to personally humiliate and discredit Saddam. We must instead focus on the result. If, to get such a peace conference, Saddam is required to withdraw from Kuwait and to accept the linkage between regional (including Iraqi) disarmament and the Palestinian issue, this is a positive result. If Saddam wants to crow about this as a victory, fine.
Others argue that it is essential that Saddam not be able to claim any credit because budding aggressors in the world may read this as a reward for aggression. But a potential aggressor seeking to extract a lesson from these events will not look to see if aggression produces any benefits at all, but whether the benefits outweigh the costs. If Saddam, after absorbing the costs of sanctions, must withdraw from Kuwait with little to show except the booby prize of new pressures to reduce his military capabilities, this will hardly be read as a reward.
Administration figures like to point out that there is no guarantee that sanctions will force out Saddam. Likewise there is no guarantee that conditional support for a Mideast peace conference will be effective. But this is not a reason not to propose it. If nothing else it may create a permanent linkage between the Palestinian issue and regional disarmament. It may also take some of the edge off of the charge that the US is being severely righteous about Iraqi violations of international law while being lax about Israeli violations. But most important, before the US - with anemic support from its allies - flings itself into a bloody war with uncertain consequences, the US should make sure that it has not left any stones unturned in the quest for a peaceful resolution.