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ANALYSIS : Bush Dialogue Offer to Iraq a Shrewd Gambit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush’s decision to propose a high-level dialogue with Iraq, a stunning reversal of his previous position, is intended both as a last chance for peace and a necessary prelude to war.

As much as an overture to Saddam Hussein, Administration officials said, the gesture is meant to persuade a restive Congress and public opinion in the United States and the rest of the world that Bush will make every reasonable effort to avoid conflict. If it also persuades Hussein to get out of Kuwait, these officials add, so much the better.

There seems to be very little confidence within the Administration that face-to-face talks will have much effect on Hussein’s oft-repeated determination to hold onto Kuwait. Nevertheless, Bush announced that he had invited Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to visit Washington and said that he is ready to send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad.

“I’m not all that hopeful . . . that we’ll get big results out of all of this,” Bush told a news conference. “It’s going the extra mile; it’s taking the extra step. But I can’t tell you that I think we’re going to have great success on all of this.”

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Bush’s skepticism is understandable. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev recently summoned Aziz to Moscow for a stern lecture and a pointed demand that Iraq end the occupation. Aziz refused to budge. Earlier in the crisis, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar was rebuffed on a peace mission to Baghdad.

Moreover, Bush made it clear that he is not willing to compromise on his refusal to permit Iraq to gain anything from its invasion. If he maintains that position, his message to Iraq will be no carrot, all stick. That sort of negotiating stance is seldom successful, especially in the Middle East.

So why send Baker now?

Bush said Hussein may not yet realize that the United States and its allies are serious in their determination to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait--by force if necessary. He said face-to-face meetings might persuade the Iraqi strongman.

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“I have not felt that he got the message,” Bush said. “I hope this will do it.”

But a far more important reason is to show the world that the United States and its allies are not rushing to war without exhausting other avenues that might lead to peace. That, the President is known to believe, is necessary to avoid the sort of divisive debate--both in this country and in the rest of the world--that would diminish the credibility of the threat to use force. Officials said the Administration, clearly wounded by respected military experts’ testimony in Congress this week that force is not necessary now, must defuse that debate if it hopes to fight successfully in the Persian Gulf.

In voting to authorize a military offensive if Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, members of the U.N. Security Council made it clear that they expect the next 45 days to bring an extensive diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis without warfare. But there were few suggestions offered on how to go about it.

Bush’s dramatic announcement was intended to get the United States out in front of that process.

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At his news conference, Bush said: “I am convinced that these two direct meetings . . . will guarantee to all the people of the world, certainly to the American people, that Saddam Hussein (does) not misunderstand” the realities of the crisis.

So far, Iraq has not responded to Bush’s new offer. However, the Baghdad regime has been demanding for months that the United States engage in a dialogue with it. For Iraq to refuse to talk now would require the same sort of 180-degree turn that Bush engaged in when he decided to propose the direct talks.

As recently as early this week, Administration officials were insisting that the United States would never send a high-level official to Baghdad because it would imply that they were willing to negotiate key demands.

Bush’s tactical reversal was a closely held secret until the President was ready to reveal it. Even after the announcement, officials were reluctant to talk about the process that led up to it. However, the decision apparently was made earlier this week, just before the Security Council debate on the use of force and as congressional criticism about the U.S. troop buildup was mounting.

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“This was Baker and Bush at their best,” said William B. Quandt, a National Security Council expert on the Middle East during the Jimmy Carter Administration. “They don’t advertise their punches. They catch everyone by surprise.

“It was a brilliant stroke, to defuse a mounting political problem the President had here at home,” Quandt said. “Whether it will be a brilliant diplomatic stroke, I can’t tell you. But this crescendo of criticism will be put on hold. He has stemmed the tide of what was beginning to be a major erosion of the domestic consensus.”


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