Why Diplomacy Never Had a Chance

DIPLOMATIC efforts prior to the outbreak of war with Iraq both succeeded and failed. They succeeded in creating an unprecedented international coalition, backed by the United Nations, but they failed to resolve the central issues that have led to the war. These issues will still remain to be resolved when the fighting stops. The establishment of the coalition, led by the US, was complicated, but feasible. European nations, including the Soviet Union, were prepared to follow the US lead, even if they did not totally agree with Washington's approaches. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms, shaken by Iraq's aggression against a neighbor, eagerly sought American and allied help. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, angered by what he considered betrayal by Saddam Hussein and the challenge of Iraqi power readily cooperated. In Damascus, Hafez al Asad calculated that the coalition's opposition to Iraq would further Syria's interests in the region.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict short of war encountered a very different situation: the deep divide between the contrary views of the issue at stake held by Saddam Hussein and George Bush. Whether these views were genuine or contrived for political or diplomatic effect is beside the point. As obstacles to compromise, they were real.

Saddam Hussein, a man of limited international experience shaped by a ruthless drive for power, is proud and ambitious. His actions before the outbreak of war demonstrated his belief that the sacrifices in the war with Iran as well as Iraq's postwar needs justified seizing the wealth of Kuwait. He believed that he had strong cards that could undermine the Western-led coalition. These cards included the envy of poorer Arabs toward the wealth and life-styles of the Gulf kingdoms; the deep resentment in the region toward Israel; historic animosities toward the Western powers that once dominated the region; the religious fervor of Muslims opposed to outside influences threatening their societies; and his conclusion that the US could not bear the sacrifices of war. He rejected Western expressions of concern over access to oil, a resource that was, after all, Arab. Any discussion of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he contended, should include references to such weapons in other regional countries. What mattered were issues of pride and power both for himself and for Iraq as a strong Arab nation.

George Bush's view of the issues was very different. He readily adopted the premise of previous administrations that the Gulf region was, because of oil, vital to US interests. Petroleum resources must remain in friendly hands if reasonable access for the world was to be assured. A national energy policy that reduced that dependence seemed neither politically nor economically feasible. Conditioned by experience before and during World War II, he saw the Iraqi action against Kuwait as a new instance of aggression that must be stopped. He agreed with the concerns of the Israelis and others over Iraq's possession of mass destruction weapons. Bolstered by the success of the secretary of state in mobilizing support in the UN and by faith in American military power, he felt confident in a tough US stance - one that was also beneficial to his domestic political image. Waiting out economic sanctions was rejected; the coalition was fragile and the clock was ticking toward the 1992 elections.

In such circumstances, a resolution through diplomacy of the profound differences proved to be impossible. Saddam wanted recognition through direct personal contact and negotiations - on his terms - with the US secretary of state, but he gave no indications that withdrawal from Kuwait would be on the table. Bush agreed to contact but on terms of ``no negotiation, no face-saving, no reward to aggression'' that closed the door to any discussion of Iraq's concerns. His emphasis on the American capacity to damage Iraq may have done more to stiffen the resolve of a proud and often humiliated people. The door to a peaceful resolution appeared closed on both sides.

The ensuing war may resolve - for a time - some of the issues that diplomacy has not yet resolved: the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the occupation of Kuwait, the future threat of Saddam's regime. But when the guns are silent in the Gulf, the complex issues of the relationships between the Arab-Muslim East and the Euro-American West will remain. Diplomats will be called upon to face the issues that brought on conflict, but in an environment changed and further embittered by battle.

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