`A Total Stiff Arm' In Geneva

Jim Baker put on his best poker face. As he strode into his Jan. 9 meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, the U. S. Secretary of State offered only an opaque glare. Aziz glared back. And for six hours, neither blinked. But as the ministers exchanged demands, flirted with negotiations, and finally ended their Geneva encounter in a standoff, even the usually suave Baker couldn't hide his frustration. "Somber?" Baker mused in assessing his mood at the end of the day. "You got it."

An anxious world had watched the meeting for a sign that diplomacy could head off a looming Mideast war. Instead, the Geneva session only highlighted the gap between Washington and Baghdad. Baker rejected Aziz' invitation to meet with Saddam Hussein for 11th-hour diplomacy, and Aziz responded by refusing even to accept President Bush's personal letter to Saddam. More important, Iraq set down markers that Washington firmly refuses to pick up. Aziz tied resolution of the Persian Gulf crisis to the Arab-Israeli issue, calling it a "matter of national security," and promised that his armed forces would "absolutely" strike Israel if the U. S. attacks Iraq.

The international game of high-stakes poker isn't quite over, though. The prospect of war has sparked a last-gasp diplomatic effort that is certain to run right up until the Jan. 15 U. N. deadline. As Baker and Aziz broke off direct contacts between Washington and Baghdad, the U. N., Middle East countries, and war-shy European allies rushed to pick up the pieces.

French President Francois Mitterrand has been itching to broker talks. The European Community planned to send a representative to meet Aziz in Algiers. And even President Bush, who called the Geneva meeting "a total stiff-arm," hoped aloud that U. N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar's planned visit to Baghdad could still produce a last-minute agreement. "I'm not giving up on peace," said Bush.

But world markets attended more to the grim expression on the President's face than to his hopeful words. Within minutes of Baker's glum announcement, oil prices rocketed to $31 a barrel from a low of $23.35. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average gave up a 40-point gain to close down 39, at 2470.

RUFFLED FEATHERS. On Capitol Hill, pandemonium broke loose. Hard-liners stepped up pressure for a resolution authorizing Bush to use force. But doves grew even more insistent that Bush not act without a formal declaration of war. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an opponent of U. S. involvement in the gulf, took an extreme position. "If the President goes to war without the authorization of Congress," he declared, "that is an impeachable offense."

Bush is likely to prevail over Congress in the end. But he may have to fight a war he desperately wants to avoid to achieve a goal he has now made unequivocal: Saddam Hussein must leave Kuwait with his tail between his legs.

The White House believed that it had paved the way for substantive progress in Geneva. After months of tough talk, Bush, Baker, and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney thought they had mounted a credible threat of massive force against Iraq. "Bush has kept relentless focus on brinksmanship," says Brookings Institution Middle East expert William B. Quandt.

But though chances of a bloody conflict have soared, White House warriors are still leaving themselves a little wiggle room for a settlement. While Bush remains inflexible on his bottom-line demand, he and Baker have all but dropped their insistence on other U. N. resolutions calling for war-crimes trials and reparations for Iraq's looting of Kuwait. And after Kuwait is freed, the U. S. poses no objection to Iraqi-Kuwaiti negotiations that could give Saddam freer access to the Persian Gulf and some Kuwaiti oil reserves--disputes that triggered the invasion.

Such good-cop, bad-cop diplomacy could still work. And European countries could offer Iraq even more incentives to settle. Washington's European partners have all but offered to back some of Baghdad's demands, including maintaining a strong regional role for Iraq, repairing the Iraqi economy after economic sanctions, and a new willingness to force a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But the question remains: What does Saddam really see when he looks out across the front lines? The Iraqi leader could gain some advantage even from an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. And the big bargaining chip in the mix--a conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict--isn't the obstacle it appears. While the Bush Administration fiercely rejects any formal link of the Arab-Israeli dispute with a Kuwait deal, both Baker and Bush have made no bones about their interest in pressuring Israel into talks over the occupied territories. "Saddam Hussein is a nasty guy, but if you give him something he didn't have before this crisis, this can be settled," says Alan Sabrosky, former research chairman at the U. S. Army War College.

Still, with weapons bristling and troops and armor rushing to the front, the chances for a diplomatic solution are dwindling. Using his hands-on brand of diplomacy, Bush lashed together an unprecedented international coalition against Iraq. But despite defiant howls from Congress, anguished allies, and the Iraqis themselves, the President has shown that if he has to go it alone, he will--whatever the consequences.

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