The Bush principle for handling crisis in the Persian Gulf seems simple: Imagine what Jimmy Carter would do. Then do exactly the opposite. This far into the crisis, the Bush principle looks like a winner.
If Carter holed up in the White House to micromanage the crisis, then go on vacation in Kennebunkport. If Carter sought political advantage in identifying his fate with Americans held hostage, refuse, at least at first, to admit publicly that thousands of Americans trapped in Iraq and Kuwait are held for ransom. If Carter shrank from using force at the start of the crisis, brandish military might immediately for all to see.
The point is not to open old wounds or to deny that Carter was dead right on some aspects of America's relationship to the Gulf -- particularly on energy policy. Poor Carter has suffered enough for his handling of the Iranian crisis to renew the assault now, just as he is establishing himself as America's only effective living ex-president.
But beneath surface contrasts of Bush 1990 and Carter 1980 lies the difference between success and failure. If Bush means and maintains what he is saying and signaling about forcing Saddam Hussein out of power, he can succeed in the Gulf, where Carter failed and lost his presidency.
From the first hours of the Iranian crisis, Carter signaled that he would pursue a negotiated settlement with the mullahs of Tehran, to the exclusion of other options. He encouraged America's European allies to keep their embassies open in Iran in the expectation that dialogue and mediation could bring about the release of American diplomats.
When this business-as-usual response to international banditry failed, Carter embarked on a tortured skein of secret contacts and negotiations with Tehran. Always the next meeting, or the next set of foreign intermediaries wearing wigs and fake moustaches, would be the key to prevailing on Ayatollah Khomeini's innate-but-as-yet-untapped reasonableness. And always they failed.
The central assumption in the Carter White House was that reason would prevail. Men of good faith could negotiate out their differences. There was an unwillingness to face the fact that the intermediaries had no chance of prevailing on Khomeini. The ayatollah sought not mediation but the humiliation of the Great Satan for his own purposes. Being reasonable was not on his list of priorities.
The same is true, in spades, of Saddam Hussein. Bush's vigorous public tongue lashings of the Iraqi dictator have been useful. They establish that this American president is no longer under any illusions about the nature of the Gulf adversary he confronts.
The president's frosty reception of King Hussein of Jordan in Kennebunkport demonstrated another lesson learned on Carter's ticket: There should be no comfortable middle ground where others can protect their interests by pretending to mediate. For Bush, an illusory mediation that lets Saddam profit from his banditry can hold no interest. Others, including some European allies, will imitate the Jordanian monarch in trying the mediation dodge; they should get the same cold shoulder.
Bush acts out of political as well as strategic necessity in taking the hardest of lines toward Saddam. He needs strong action to fog over the reality that he and his aides dithered while Iraq laid out publicly its intention to resort to aggression and terror to have its way. The president needed to look no further than the newspapers to understand what Saddam was up to, with the help of U.S. and European credits and technology.
The political imperative to mask his earlier equivocation will keep Bush's backbone from sagging in this crisis. So will the growing signs of Saddam's vulnerability. There could be no clearer statement of the Iraqi dictator's desperate plight than his call to Iran to kiss and make up. Saddam is suddenly willing to give back the territory Iraq gained in the fruitless eight-year war with Iran and to accept Iranian control of navigation on the Shatt al Arab river, if he can keep Kuwait.
Saddam wants to free Iraqi troops on the Iranian frontier and, more important, to get Iran's help in breaking the naval quarantine he faces. He entrusts his fate to the successors of Khomeini, who have greeted Saddam's peace appeal with the smiles of an emaciated cat eyeing the plumpest of canaries.
The mullahs know that Saddam acts in extremis. They know they can trust his promises about what he will do when he is out of this tight corner as much as he can trust theirs. These are two scorpions locked in a bottle, one of whom must extinguish the other.
In trying to make a deal with the Iranians to save his skin, Saddam pursues a final fantasy that will end in disaster for him. He could look it up. Or he could ask Jimmy Carter.