I've been trying to picture it. Saddam Hussein has ignored the Jan. 15 deadline for quitting Kuwait, though he still professes an interest in an international conference. Meanwhile, his troops are just sitting there: holding no hostages, making only defensive threats, posing (for the moment) no particular menace.
And then, out of the blue, comes an all-out American attack that kills and maims not just Iraqi and American soldiers but also Kuwaiti citizens, including defenseless women and babies.
Could you do it? Could President Bush? What would you -- what would the world -- think of the man who ordered a full-scale assault on a sitting duck?
I may be the only person in Washington who believes that it won't happen absent some new provocation from Saddam -- that Bush will allow the international community to fashion an exit from the madness in which he and the Iraqi now find themselves.
But think about it. Bush knows that the American people don't want it to happen and that the congressional authorization (by the slimmest of margins) for such an assault was motivated less by any desire that it be launched than by the desire not to humiliate the president.
In what way would the consequences of such a brutal attack (which inevitably would be seen as a unilateral U.S. action) be less catastrophic than an American show of patience?
The trouble, as Jesse Jackson noted in an interview earlier this week, is that Bush has made both U.S. patience and Iraqi withdrawal impossible by insisting that there is nothing to negotiate.
He offers a useful reminder. U.N. Security Council Resolution 660 contains three elements. Saddam's refusal to accept the first two -- condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait -- have brought us to the brink of war. Allied attention to the third, largely ignored element -- negotiations to resolve the preexisting dispute between Iraq and Kuwait -- could, Jackson believes, provide a path to peace.
"The fact is that there was a dispute recognized by both Kuwait and the United Nations prior to the Aug. 2 invasion. An international conference called to negotiate that dispute could afford a way out of the impasse."
Jackson's notion supposes, not unreasonably, that neither Bush nor Saddam wants war, but that both are trapped in a psychology in which any bilateral concession becomes a sign of weakness. In effect, both have gambled and lost.
Saddam's error, says Jackson, was to invade Kuwait and, more critically, to stay there. Bush's error was to "climb into the ditch he dug for Hussein." "By throwing out this arbitrary date for withdrawal, anything beyond this date eats into his ego, makes it very personal."
The way out, he believes, is to challenge Saddam to "come to the table" of an international conference to negotiate the prior-existing dispute with Kuwait, "conditional on Iraqi withdrawal to the zone of the dispute," with a guarantee that he would not be attacked while the negotiations are in progress."
But wouldn't Saddam use such a pledge as an excuse to engage in endless negotiation, while solidifying his hold on Kuwait?
Jackson doesn't think so. "Hussein has oil he can't sell, hotels he can't rent, an economy that is crumbling. Endless negotiation doesn't do him any good. And keeping things the way they are now doesn't do us any good. What we have now is CNN diplomacy. All the threats Bush makes -- that we'll slaughter their people, take out their military power -- are piped directly into Baghdad and Kuwait City. This is a factor in their psychology, making it difficult for them to give in, even in the face of certain military defeat."
But if the Iraqis are trapped in their psychology, Bush is trapped in his. He may worry about the consequences of war, but he worries more about the consequences of appearing to do nothing after staking his reputation on the notion that Iraq would not be allowed to get away with its "naked aggression."
But eschewing war is not the same as doing nothing. If Bush could get it out of his head that the sanctions aren't working (after all, Iraq has not had a market for its single marketable asset -- oil -- since the invasion) he might see the wisdom of using his war-making authority as a way to forestall any further adventurism by Saddam, meanwhile letting the sanctions continue as a self-inflicted chokehold on the Iraqi economy.
War, and the carnage it entails, may ultimately be unavoidable. But wouldn't you feel better knowing that we had used every resource at our command -- including patience -- to avoid it?