On the 35th day of war, President Bush has victory within his grasp. If he will ratify the Soviet-Iraqi proposal, with or without some haggling over details, he will confirm a signal triumph of policy and arms. He will also be able to resume work on his vision of a "new world order." But if he fails to pursue this opening, he could gravely weaken the international coalition and invite charges from some corners of the world that the United States has preferred war to peace.
A week ago, Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council took the key step by admitting that Kuwait has an independent existence and by accepting the principle of withdrawal. Debate shifted to the price. The initial price was clearly unacceptable, a mish-mash of maximum demands. But the potential deal that has now been brokered by Mikhail Gorbachev gives the United States most of what it wants at little further cost and without unacceptable conditions, such as linkage to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Since the war began, the United States has had three basic aims, only one of which was Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Two others took immediate precedence: to cripple Iraq's ability to make war in the future, and to keep U.S. casualties to a minimum. Both have been achieved far beyond all but the most optimistic projections. Limiting the loss of American lives has been the more phenomenal accomplishment: fewer combat fatalities so far than in Panama last year.
The air campaign--sanctions by other means--has destroyed most if not all of Iraq's ability to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and, by Pentagon count, at least a third of its heavy weaponry. Even if it can keep its arms, the Iraqi army will be a shadow of its former self, with its basic infrastructure and armaments industry in tatters.
The Bush Administration naturally prefers that even more of Iraq's military potential be destroyed, and it will try to insist that all military equipment be left behind in Kuwait. It will also look carefully at the fine print regarding the lifting of sanctions. That part of the proposal must not be construed to mean that the world cannot impose strict limits on the flow of new weapons to Iraq, presumably as part of a region-wide effort to prevent a repetition of the obscene dumping of arms in Middle East states.
Under the Soviet-Iraqi proposal, one implied U.S. war aim will not be achieved--at least not directly: the deposing of Saddam Hussein. Yet, short of a bloody drive on Baghdad, it was never clear how this was to be achieved, other than through a coup d'etat. That possibility becomes more likely following Hussein's second failed venture at warfare.
From the U.S. point of view, the moment is propitious for the war to stop. Throughout the crisis and war, Saddam Hussein promoted several key themes with strong resonance in the Arab and Islamic worlds: imperialism, Palestine, and rich versus poor. A bitter ground battle could only strengthen Hussein's case. By contrast, his failure places him in the ranks of other false saviors in the region who have only brought grief to their peoples.
If Bush accepts the Soviet-Iraqi proposal, he can count other gains that further fighting might turn into losses. Iran has broken its 10 years of isolation and seems prepared to play a more constructive role in the region. The unprecedented 28-nation coalition that Bush created has held together from war's beginning to its potential end. No leader has been toppled, not even Jordan's King Hussein, who has been most vulnerable. Israel has not been drawn into the war, but has had its basic interests protected. Arab states in the region owe the United States a critical debt of gratitude, and they can be pressed to play positive roles in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Not least, if the war ends now, the President will be spared the risk of renewed, bruising domestic debate about the purpose and course of the conflict.
The U.S. victory, if Bush will accept it, is not unalloyed. More U.S. troops will have to remain behind for a longer time than if Iraq had been completely defeated. And the need for regional security arrangements will be more pressing and potentially more difficult to achieve with Saddam Hussein still in power. But these problems pale against the magnitude of the U.S. achievement.
If the war can be terminated, now, the global standing of both President Bush and the United States will also be enhanced. The principle that aggression must not pay will have been validated. Further strains in the Western alliance, which would ensue if American casualties were to mount, will have been avoided. U.S.-Soviet relations, hanging in the balance as Washington watched the unfolding of Gorbachev's game, can be preserved and refocused on issues of larger strategic consequence.
Finally, by hewing to the mandate of the United Nations--Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait--the United States can validate that institution's role. It will have seized the moral high ground and be well placed to advance the standards of international behavior. George Bush can thereby reinvigorate the hopes that were raised by the end of the Cold War but suspended by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.