U.S. Should Never Fear to Negotiate : But only fear may prompt Saddam to negotiate

Winston Churchill was of course right: It's better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. But before conversation can replace prospective conflict, before negotiations can substitute for belligerency, parties to a dispute must be willing to talk, and they must have something to talk about.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein, through the usual medium of a statement read on Baghdad television, has again chided President Bush for allegedly scorning a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis, the implication being that Hussein himself is ready to look for a peaceful way out. Is he sending a signal that should be taken seriously?

Maybe. The Iraqi dictator may have figured out by now that his conquest and annexation of Kuwait falls far short of the quick and easy triumph he envisioned, that in fact it has left him with both feet planted firmly in quicksand. In that case he may have decided to try reaching for a lifeline now before the ooze closes over his head.

The evidence of his miscalculation is all around him. The U. N.-approved trade embargo promises to squeeze Iraq's economy severely, and national morale along with it. Hussein's heart may be warmed when Palestinians in Jordan and on the West Bank cheer his name, but that doesn't make up for the global political isolation his aggression prompted. Neither does it offset the ring of military power being drawn ever tighter around his country.

In this light it's possible that Hussein is indeed eager for a political way out of what, from Baghdad's perspective, is an increasingly bleak and ominous confrontation.

Alternatively, it's possible that the TV statements read in his name only aim to divide the ranks of those who have combined against him, to give an illusion of reasonableness, to stall in hopes that the embargo will soon start to leak and that the tolerance of his opponents for a potentially long standoff will erode. Deviousness, after all, is one of Hussein's hallmarks.

There are, we think, two key tests of Hussein's sincerity about seeking a negotiated accommodation. First, instead of propaganda statements on Baghdad TV, he should act to deal directly--at U.N. headquarters in New York, in Baghdad or Washington, through legitimate third parties--with representatives of the forces arrayed against him. Contacts have not broken off; channels are open. If he wants a diplomatic settlement, he should use them.

Second, a peaceful solution can only come on the basis of all the U.N. Security Council resolutions prompted by Hussein's aggression. That means Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait must be total and unconditional, its annexation must be nullified, foreign hostages in Iraq and Kuwait must be released immediately and without harm. There can be no reward for aggression, no retained profits from theft.

Hussein, for internal and Arab world consumption, seeks to depict himself as a victim of outside aggression. He is in fact a victim only of his own overarching greed, ambition and arrogance. This confrontation was wholly his doing. He still has time to end it without inviting a horribly destructive clash of arms.

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