If the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mikhail Gorbachev reinforces his inclination to pursue peace in the Persian Gulf, the fact remains that the sort of diplomatic initiative he is shaping puts him at odds with George Bush, whose Gulf strategy is based in large measure on projecting a unity of Soviet and American policy and resolve.
The Soviet leader appears to favor precisely the outcome that Secretary of State James A. Baker belittles as the "siren song" of a "partial solution" -- an incomplete withdrawal from Kuwait that leaves Iraq with selected oil fields and access islands, a political deal in Kuwait that falls short of restoration of the old ruling family and beyond that an overall settlement that keeps Saddam Hussein in power.
Not that Saddam would accept this outcome. He insists he won't waver. So, for that matter, does the United States. But at the same time he dangles hints of concessions, and whether his purpose is simply to confuse the coalition ranged against him or to prepare a fallback position is something that -- aside from guessing, which is foolish -- there are only two ways to tell.
One of those ways is to keep the pressure on. This is the approach currently embraced by the United States. Applying an embargo, a diplomatic squeeze and the threat of military confrontation, it has made Iraq's prior acceptance of United Nations demands for withdrawal and restoration a nonnegotiable condition just for opening a dialogue with Saddam Hussein.
Here lies the diplomatic meaning, as distinguished from the propaganda meaning, of Bush's repeated references to Saddam Hussein as a Hitler. It is not simply that Saddam has committed terrible human rights crimes and set himself on a path of aggression. With a Hitler, you cannot compromise; the only acceptable result in a confrontation with him is his unconditional surrender.
American aims are worthy, even noble. The question remains whether the dogged pursuit of these aims may not progressively separate President Bush from his allies and push him into military action in which the United States would have little international company and something less than enthusiastic domestic support, especially if there were no prompt successes. In that case the United States, not Iraq, might be the more isolated. The general mood on how Bush is doing on this score changes; he has had some good patches, and currently he is going through a bad one.
To those who believe that the United States would be better off living with an imperfect Gulf compromise than accepting the costs and uncertainties of a shooting war, Gorbachev is lending his weight to a potential alternative.
He explicitly accepts -- Bush rejects -- not only the idea of dialogue but also the idea of compromise. Having begun the dialogue, he is testing Iraq's actual readiness for compromise by trying to add an element of negotiation to the pressure that his government has applied through the United Nations resolutions. Amid some varied signals from Moscow, Gorbachev recently sent to Baghdad an envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, who pronounced himself "optimistic" about Iraqi withdrawal. Baker's putdown of a "partial solution" followed. Primakov has been in Washington for consultations.
The Cold War may be over, but a quiet political struggle goes on between Soviets and Americans for regional influence and the mantle of leadership. It is a comfort that the two governments are together on rolling back and containing Iraq. Still, this policy is a broad street, and they are working different sides of it.
Close by Iraq, populated by 50 million Moslems wary of a lingering American presence in the Gulf, the Soviet Union wants to end up with good neighbors and a friendly and stable neighborhood. Standing at a distance and seeing the crisis more as a test of American world reach and prestige, the United States wants a victory that lays down the rules of the new global game. These political tensions are aggravated by the personal burdens the two leaders carry.
With so much at stake in reducing the menace of Saddam Hussein, it should not be impossible for the Soviet and American governments to harness their policies to that large end. They must find a way to rise above their tactical differences and seek out shared strategic terrain. It is a tough job for two governments unaccustomed to working together in this fashion, and an essential one.