Until bomb-happy George Bush opted to obliterate Iraq, no evidence was seen that he had asked for, received or relied on counsel from practitioners skilled in peaceful conflict management. Nor had Saddam Hussein. Evidence points the other way: Advisers to both men serving up worn-out, uninspired strategies for belligerent conflict management, ones that rely on bluster, not reason. The difference between the two methods is that one leads to conflict remedies, the other to conflict heightening.
The five-month war of threats between Bush and Saddam had been a textbook example of how not to manage conflict. In issuing mutual damnations and vowing to send their armies to slaughter each other, both leaders had citizens at home wondering whether they were wise men who were posturing or suicidal fools who meant it.
Four classic conflict-management techniques could have been used by the United States to ease its dispute with Saddam Hussein. These techniques are being used successfully to eliminate disruptions in families, workplaces and schools in communities across America. Everyone but the White House seems to know about them. Conflicts, which can evoke nobility in some and pettiness in others, can't be avoided. Destructive solutions to them can.
1. Identify the root cause, not the surface cause, of the fight. With no letup, Bush has defined Saddam as all-evil. The United States and its allies are all-good. This is an unnecessary loading of the conflict process. The fires of religious and political violence in the Middle East, long stoked by U.S., Soviet and other outside interventions, have left no one blameless of arson. Saddam's barbarities in Kuwait were part of a pattern -- human-rights violations, killing Kurds with chemicals -- that had gone unopposed by the United States throughout the 1980s and until the eve of Aug. 2. Once in Kuwait, Saddam was left to wonder about the United States: What ticked it off now but not all those other times?
To create a climate of dialogue, not diatribe, Bush should have acknowledged past U.S. mistakes in the Middle East. If one side in a conflict insists on total rectitude, nothing is likely to be resolved because the other is pushed deeper into defensiveness. From a trench, the horizon of resolution is out of view.
2. Clarify the difference between what is wanted and what is needed. Throughout, Bush has advanced the "vital interest" argument: oil. Yet the United States could declare independence of Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil, with only modest conservation strategies and slight changes in fuel use. The vital interests are, in fact, vital excesses. Oil gluttony has been the American norm for so long that a mild threat to it brings out 400,000 U.S. troops. They are ready to die not for what we need but for what we waste.
3. Avoid overreaction. As vile as the murdering and wounding of Kuwaitis by Iraqi invaders was, other governments have also committed international thuggery and we have not reacted. Then there is our own aggression. Hundreds of Panamanian families, still mourning their loved ones killed by American invaders in December 1989, would see little difference between their victimization and the Kuwaitis'. The shrieks that Saddam is another Hitler created a stridency that had the effect of cornering Bush into a stance of no compromise, no deals and even no listening.
In "Conflict Partnership," a 1984 book, Prof. Dudley Weeks of American University describes an approach that has been taken by Bush: "Policy is made, public opinion is formed, and a potentially cataclysmic war is brought ever nearer by a mind-set based on misperceived images. In some cases, the exaggerated negative image of the adversary nation and-or system is purposely created to justify and to whip up public support for a policy that would seem unthinkable if the adversary nation were perceived as the less threatening, less ogre-like entity it really is."
4. Negotiation is not capitulation. Sophisticated conflict managers emphasize the reasonableness of their own position rather than the unreasonableness of the adversary's. This allows the other side a chance to respond positively, not negatively. Bush's rejection of the force of economic sanctions against the Iraqi government reveals his contempt for a nonviolent solution. He tells Saddam: Withdraw or you're history. Bush has chosen to dictate to a dictator, saying, in effect, you acted murderously, now we'll be the murderers.
It's language Saddam understands. He may be content to have found an adversary thickheaded enough to speak it. Had Bush been a reasonable man, Saddam would have had problems. He might have been persuaded to be rational himself.