Ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait five weeks ago, the Bush Administration has been striving to make sure that Saddam Hussein goes to bed every night not knowing whether he will wake up to the thunder of U.S. military force.
At their otherwise harmonious summit meeting Sunday, however, President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev differed sharply on that approach, with Gorbachev insisting at a joint press conference that Moscow is firmly opposed to the military option.
"We may have a difference on that," Bush conceded.
The dispute is primarily a tactical one. Bush and Gorbachev agreed to maintain--and if necessary increase--the economic and political pressure on Iraq. But Gorbachev's reluctance to sanction the use of force may be taken by Hussein as a signal that he faces no immediate danger of attack. That could cause him to dig in his heels and wait out the United States and its allies.
Of course, Gorbachev may change his mind if economic sanctions prove to be inadequate. But it seems clear that the Soviet president wants to give the trade embargo and other political measures a very long trial.
Delay costs Gorbachev nothing. But the United States, with more than 100,000 military personnel already in the region, can ill afford a prolonged standoff. Although Saudi Arabia and the exiled government of Kuwait have agreed to pay much of the $1-billion-a-month cost of the deployment, the United States would find it difficult to keep such a large force in place if the conflict becomes a stalemate.
Although Bush stressed repeatedly that he, too, favors a peaceful resolution to the crisis, he said it would be wrong to tip off Iraq by closing out the military option.
"I did not say that if Iraq does not withdraw peacefully, we're going to have recourse to military methods," Gorbachev said. " . . . Our country and the United Nations . . . (have) a whole range of possibilities of finding a political solution to this problem. Therefore, I would limit ourselves to that."
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, talking to a small group of reporters after the Bush-Gorbachev news conference, insisted that Washington is satisfied with the words of the joint statement in which Bush and Gorbachev promised to consider additional measures "consistent with the U.N. Charter" if the present embargo does not force Iraq to withdraw.
Baker said the charter does not prohibit the use of force in all circumstances.
"You might conclude from the press conference that the Soviets are not on board yet on the use of force," Baker said. "But you have a joint statement that doesn't rule it out.
"I don't think he (Hussein) will take any joy out of reading this statement," Baker added.
American officials conceded that Bush and Gorbachev did not go significantly further in their condemnation of Iraq than Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze did in a statement issued the day after the invasion.
But Baker said the reaffirmation of Moscow's stand against Iraq was significant in itself. He noted that on Saturday, Hussein had called on Moscow to "act like a superpower" and repudiate the U.S. position.
Bush and Gorbachev also disagreed publicly over a Soviet proposal for a Middle East peace conference to consider both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the festering Arab-Israeli conflict.
"Everything that is taking place in the Middle East is a matter of concern to us--of equal concern," Gorbachev said.
For his part, Bush said that the U.N. resolutions calling for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait "should be implemented on their face without trying to tie it in to some other unresolved dispute."
At the same time, Bush said he would support a renewed effort to implement a 23-year-old U.N. resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip "to secure and recognized boundaries."
"It is important that that (Israeli-Palestinian) question eventually, and hopefully sooner than later, be resolved," Bush said.