The Bush administration yesterday called for a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis, warned Iraq against "coercion and intimidation," and ordered U.S. forces in the gulf on an emergency training exercise that officials said is meant as a response to the military buildup on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
In statements from the White House, State Department and Pentagon, the Bush adminstration sought to strike a balance between standing behind its moderate Arab allies militarily while also seeking to foster an Arab diplomatic solution to the worst Persian Gulf crisis since the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict.
U.S. officials expressed deep concerns yesterday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was pushing the confrontation to an alarming level. And they expressed equal concern that the U.S. response not provoke greater escalation.
"One worries that people can get caught up in certain kinds of statements, challenges and commitments where chances for a miscalculation are dangerous," one administration involved in managing the U.S. response said.
"My personal view is that it is going to really require Arab states themselves" to resolve the conflict because "they are the only ones who can bring the right pressure for the right outcome."
The military exercise, called on short notice at the request of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), involves two U.S. KC-135 aerial tankers and a C-141 cargo transport practicing air-to-air refueling with with UAE air force planes, according to U.S. and Arab officials. It marked the first time UAE officials have agreed to cooperate openly with a U.S. military exercise.
All six U.S. warships attached to the Joint Task Force Middle East, based in the Persian Gulf, were deployed Monday to give "communications support" for the exercise, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said late yesterday.
One administration official said, however, that two U.S. ships were deployed to northern gulf waters near Kuwait while the other four took up stations in the southern gulf.
"There is no place for coercion and intimidation in a civilized world," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler. She said the United States is closely monitoring the military buildup and efforts by Arab leaders to settle the dispute.
The crisis erupted last week when Iraq threatened to use force if necessary to discipline Kuwait and the UAE, whose overproduction of crude oil is blamed by cash-short Iraq for driving down world oil prices.
The quarrel over production quotas in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is expected to come to a head today in Geneva when oil ministers try to reach a compromise.
In a measured response that nevertheless indicated some conflict in the administration over how to calibrate a U.S. position in the crisis, Tutwiler said that the United States has no specific commitment to defend Kuwait against attack.
"We do not have any defense treaties with Kuwait and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait," she said, but then added, "We also remain strongly committed to supporting the individual and collective self-defense of our friends in the gulf, with whom we have deep and long-standing ties."
A U.S. military official said that if Iraq seizes a small amount of Kuwaiti territory as a means of gaining additional leverage over Kuwait in OPEC, the United States probably would not directly challenge the move, but would join with all Arab governments in denouncing it and putting pressure on Iraq to back down.
"We are not going to go to war," the official said, "but you are going to see exercises and you are going to see ships."