The "extra mile" that President Bush offers to walk to get Iraq's occupation army out of Kuwait without war is a long and risky distance. The president must stick to the road map that he sketched in his surprise offer to talk to Iraq and avoid the strategic trap of negotiations that sap the will of America and its allies in the confrontation with Saddam Hussein.
Bush's extra mile maneuver was politically adroit and probably diplomatically necessary to obtain United Nations support for the use of force. But it will nonetheless be seen by the Iraqi dictator as a sign of American weakness to be exploited. He has fooled Bush before. He will surely try to do so again.
Saddam will employ the president's offer to buy time, as he showed by immediately conditioning his acceptance on mixing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into the talks on Kuwait.
Thus begin the negotiations about negotiations -- the gray area of crisis diplomacy that Henry Kissinger warned against in Senate hearings Nov. 28. Kissinger predicted that Saddam would seek such talks to start "a protracted process in which it can never be shown that success is impossible, but in which at the same time success is never quite reached."
But it was Bush who sprang the talks initiative two days later, after obtaining the U.N. resolution on force. The power to run the crisis shifts now from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell to Secretary of State Jim Baker, a deal-maker by trade and inclination and Kissinger's cleverest successor at Foggy Bottom.
The White House and Baker will successfully resist Saddam's demand to put the Palestinians on the U.S.-Iraqi agenda now. Saddam's commitment to that cause is skin deep, and he will jettison it for any good excuse that comes along. (Saddam's duplicity was detailed in a stunning account by Judith Miller of The New York Times last month disclosing that even Palestinians are now beginning to oppose Saddam's war because of the brutal treatment they have received in occupied Kuwait.)
But in turning down that demand, the president will be asked to give up something in return to look "reasonable" to U.S. and world opinion. It may "only" be the clever fine print Bush put into his invitation to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to come to Washington: Aziz would be required to sit down with America's coalition partners in the Persian Gulf -- presumably including Kuwait.
By withdrawing his own condition, Bush could start a process of responding to Saddam's concerns about "face" that will lead to more important splittings of differences. Is it possible that eventually the president will go back to seeing Saddam as a potential partner in arranging Middle East stability?
You would think not. More important, the president has said he will not. The road map that he sketched is clear: Baker will not negotiate with Saddam in Baghdad. Baker goes as one final sign of American determination that Saddam must leave Kuwait or face military retaliation. Aziz comes to Washington to get the same message, nothing more, nothing less.
On the weekend television talk shows, Bush was accused by some commentators of making a cynical gesture to pacify congressional critics while plotting war. Others portrayed him as losing his nerve in front of falling polls and preparing a sellout of Kuwait and America's other allies in the Arab civil war initiated by Saddam.
My concerns run more toward the dangers of a disguised sellout, which is the greater long-term danger to world peace. But it is not inevitable. By lashing themselves to two unshakable procedural propositions, Bush and Baker can show that they remain serious in opposing Saddam's deadly aims.
The first is that they have no leeway in extending talks with Iraq beyond the U.N. mandated deadline of Jan. 15. By design or otherwise, Bush and Baker have handcuffed themselves to a barrier to these talks dragging on, as Kissinger fears. They should now toss away the keys by confirming publicly and repeatedly that under no circumstance will there be an extension of the Jan. 15 deadline. Saddam withdraws totally from Kuwait and releases all foreign hostages -- or faces destruction.
Second, Bush and Baker should look at Aziz's last trip to Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev dressed the Iraqi diplomat down in public both before and after their meeting. And Tass, the official news agency, published the contents of the sharp warnings Gorbachev delivered in the meeting while Aziz was still in town. He did not dispute that account.
The Soviets made sure that Aziz did not distort or fail to deliver all their message to Saddam. Baghdad is a city where the messenger who brings bad news is actually, not figuratively, shot. Aziz has not survived this long by telling Saddam things he does not want to hear.
If there were ever a case in which Woodrow Wilson's idealistic idea of "open diplomacy" was appropriate, this is it. Bush and Baker can afford to do no less than the Soviets did. They should do much more. They should conduct all their diplomacy in public view, with no hidden promises, no ambiguous hints. Anything less will revive the fears and suspicions that their past misreading of Saddam created.
It is partly those misreadings that got us in this mess, as the Democrats are eager to remind the electorate in 1992. Bush and Baker must overcome that legacy, not repeat it.