As President Bush and his advisers studied the Soviet peace proposal Thursday night, members of Congress and allied governments voiced upbeat though tentative hope that it could be the basis for ending the Persian Gulf War without a bloody ground offensive.
Even before the White House issued its own cautious response, it was being buffeted by calls from some of its most loyal Republican supporters urging serious consideration of the proposal. Similarly, envoys for some U.S. allies expressed guarded optimism that the proposal could prove constructive, though they raised objections to some of its specific provisions.
"Some will not be satisfied" and will insist that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein relinquish power," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). But, he added: "It's possible we're getting close if he (Hussein) agreed to withdraw with not so many strings attached. If he withdrew from Kuwait and we can keep the sanctions in place, I think most people would feel that's what we're looking for."
One leading Arab envoy said the Soviet proposal could serve as the vehicle for a settlement, but he voiced objections to ending sanctions while some Iraqi troops remain in Kuwait or nullifying all U.N. resolutions once any withdrawal is complete.
"There are positive aspects to this, but work still needs to be done," the envoy said, adding that Hussein probably will have to make further concessions to win allied acceptance of the peace plan. Meanwhile, he said, the air war will continue.
Before Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz's visit to Moscow, White House officials insisted that vague signs of progress--or simply a continuation of Soviet efforts to reach an agreement with Iraq--would have no impact on the movement toward a ground war.
"We're not going to be held hostage to anything like that," said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You just kind of watch and proceed."
Although some in the government believe Hussein is "obviously playing for time," in the words of one official, the assessments have grown more optimistic based on the Iraqi president's indications, beginning last Friday, that he would withdraw under certain conditions.
One Arab diplomat said Hussein's sudden flexibility showed he "is weakening under the attack."
"Saddam Hussein is not a martyr. He will not fight to the end. He wants to save his skin. A man who is so careful about his personal security is not a martyr," he said.
But it was in the initial, upbeat responses--although tempered with a degree of skepticism--on Capitol Hill that the mood swing was most pronounced, even as warnings were issued that the economic sanctions must remain in place.
"It would be foolish to say that it doesn't have promise," said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.). "The only precondition that I think will cause heartburn is removal of the sanctions. The sanctions will have to continue in effect for some time to prevent a buildup of military supplies by Iraq."
"Does he really intend withdrawal, or is he pulling some kind of trick?" said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the proposal is "very significant because it mentioned unconditional withdrawal." But he said he would want to know whether Iraq would pay reparations to Kuwait and accept monitoring of its remaining weapons of mass destruction.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, said in a CBS television interview: "We ought not to reject it too quickly. We ought to take a very hard look at it.
"We don't want to get into the position that we don't want to consider a serious proposal. After all, it calls for an unconditional pullout from Kuwait, and that has always been our objective."
Asked if negotiations over the plan would slow the U.S. military momentum, Hamilton replied: "That is precisely the risk. That is why we have to weigh it seriously. The other side of it is that we don't want to lose a genuine opportunity for peace.
"The problem is that a muddy, ambiguous political solution could undercut a military victory which is close. It is an exceedingly difficult dilemma. The time pressures on the President are great."
Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was more cautious.
"I don't suspect the President will go with that (plan)," Exon told reporters. "But it's in the President's hands now. And whatever decision he reaches, I think we should support."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) added: "It's positive--but I'm not at all convinced that it's the proposal we ought to take."
Some skepticism went even deeper.
George Carver, former deputy director of the CIA, said Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev seemed to be trying to spare the Soviet military the humiliation of seeing U.S.-led coalition forces rout an army that Moscow had trained and equipped.
"This is a fairly artfully baited hook," said Carver, now a senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But if the President doesn't spurn it, he will hand a major victory to the Soviet Union, whose agenda is different from ours or the United Nations'."
"Saddam is facing a major defeat, and he is trying with Soviet help to wiggle off the hook," Carver said.
Marvin Feuerwerger and Martin Indyk, in an analysis issued by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Bush will have to "choose between accepting terms that would bring an Iraqi withdrawal which could well leave Saddam in power with much of his military capability intact, and rejecting the Soviet terms with all the potential that could have for splitting the superpowers and generating Soviet-American tensions not seen since the end of the Cold War."