THE surprising peace initiative of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev awaits two answers - one from Saddam Hussein and one from George Bush. The Iraqi leader, facing the imminent assault of a massive coalition army, must decide whether to risk retreat in the hope of political survival. The United States president must decide whether he can accept a solution to the Gulf conflict that will liberate Kuwait but leave his foe in power in Baghdad.
The Gorbachev peace plan was presented at a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz on Feb. 18.
The Soviet plan calls for the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, according to outlines that have emerged from published reports and official comments. In return, Moscow would commit itself to maintaining Iraq's state structure and borders. It would also oppose any sanctions against Iraq and any punishment of Saddam. Under the plan, broader regional issues, including the Palestinian conflict, would be discussed after the war.
Mr. Aziz returned to Iraq Feb. 19 with the plan and a Soviet request for an immediate reply from the Iraqi leader. US officials consider it unlikely that the Soviet plan will be accepted, since Iraq has still not signaled its willingness to withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally. If Iraq does decide to go along, the US may have no choice but to do the same, even if Saddam was allowed to remain in power.
``How can you put 10,000 people to their deaths if the Iraqis are withdrawing and the Sabbahs [Kuwait's ruling family] are able to come back into power?'' asks a US official rhetorically.
The pledge to oppose sanctions against Iraq runs counter to a UN resolution calling for Iraq to pay war reparations and to US calls for war-crimes trials against Iraqi officials over treatment of prisoners of war.
The most serious problem for the US is the potential linkage of a Gulf war settlement with other Middle East issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The US and its Western coalition partners have consistently rejected any hint of such linkage. But both US and Soviet experts believe a looser connection might be acceptable.
``The US has already said it will focus on the dispute after the crisis is over and has agreed in principle to an international conference at an appropriate time,'' says Marvin Feuerwerger, an expert at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy. ``So it all depends on the language.''
The Soviet plan does not call for direct linkage, says Nodari Simonia, deputy director of the influential Moscow Institute for International Relations and World Economy. ``It may be the kind of promise that after the war is ended, after Kuwait is liberated, all the great powers will be engaged in a solution of regional problems.'' The Middle East expert suggests that this is a ``formula on which everyone, even Israel, can agree.''
Publicly, US officials say they are happy with the Soviet attempt to find a diplomatic settlement before the onset of a ground war, widely expected to begin within a week. In fact, any peace that would leave Saddam in power and his Army and Air Force largely intact would be unwelcome in Washington, where postwar planning is largely premised on the destruction of Iraq's warmaking potential.
`ALL the talk is premised on Saddam being gone,'' says the US official. ``If Saddam is still there, we'll have to do other things,'' including keeping US troops in the area for a period after the war.
``We'd be of two minds,'' continues the official. ``There's a real sense that people would like to have a solution in which Saddam is no longer in power in Baghdad. But that's a second level consideration. If there's a solution and the Soviets take the credit, more power to them. There will be a lingering feeling that it would be too bad that we didn't get Saddam, but we will be glad we didn't lose 10,000 people in the process.''
Official Soviet commentary in recent weeks has been critical of the US for exceeding the bounds of the United Nations mandate, particularly in focusing its attack on Iraq itself rather than freeing Kuwait. Soviet officials and experts say that the destruction of Iraq would be destabilizing and that Saddam must be offered a face-saving way to end the war.
``Iraq is a very important part of the balance of power in the Middle East,'' adds Middle East specialist Vitaly Naumkin, deputy director of the Institute of Oriental Studies. He predicts Israel, Turkey, and Iran will emerge as dominating powers with Iraq's collapse, leaving no strong Arab power and further instability. On the other hand, he argues, ``Iraq is weakened enough not to pose a threat to anybody.'' After the war, he adds, the great powers can jointly create a security system that would block advanced weapons proliferation.
US officials interpret the Soviet initiative as an attempt by Moscow to distance itself from US policy with an eye to improving its position in the Middle East after the Gulf war is over.
``The Soviets are seeking to cash in on discontent [with the West] by playing the diplomatic game,'' says the US official.