KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE, AUG. 24 -- As the crisis in the Middle East enters its fourth week, U.S. officials believe the military situation along the Saudi Arabian border with Kuwait has stabilized for the moment, and that the likelihood of a prolonged U.S.-Iraqi military and diplomatic standoff is at least as great as that of war.
The possibility of a lengthy standoff, while the administration waits for Iraq to bow to international economic sanctions, has raised concerns about how long domestic and international support for those sanctions, as well as for the massive U.S. military presence designed to deter an attack on Saudi Arabia, can be maintained.
Officials are clearly edgy over the latest developments, including the detention of more than 100 U.S. diplomats and dependents in Baghdad. At the same time, officials do not anticipate that today's surrounding of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City by Iraqi forces, or the possible disabling of Iraqi tankers in the Persian Gulf by U.S. naval forces, which could begin this weekend, are the flashpoints that will set off hostilities.
U.S. public support for possible military action has been surprisingly high so far, in the view of officials, who are eager for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to believe the American people would support a military strike. But the officials are said to believe that strong public support for U.S. military action would still require a clearly understandable provocation -- the invasion of Saudi Arabia, an attack on Saudi oil fields, or the killing of Americans held hostage -- on the part of Iraq.
Attacks on Americans in Iraq and Kuwait would quickly change U.S. policy from reliance on economic sanctions as the main weapon to force an Iraqi retreat from Kuwait to a massive military strike with maximum use of U.S. air superiority.
U.S. officials see no good outcome to the hostage aspect of the crisis, a problem that is said to gnaw at President Bush constantly. But the administration is said to be mindful of the lessons of its predecessors, and is determined not to allow the conflict to be turned into a hostage-focused crisis. Bush is said to be prepared to take steps that would cost the lives of U.S. citizens, if needed, to stop Saddam. To do otherwise, officials believe, would only encourage others in the future to attempt to turn any clash with the United States into a hostage crisis.
U.S. officials believe Saddam is increasingly nervous and worried, and they point to recent public statements from the Iraqi leader as evidence. While considering those statements far off the mark in the kinds of conditions he is talking about for negotiations, they view Saddam's efforts as a step toward becoming more realistic.
Saddam is seen as a brutal and dangerous leader, but not one willing to go down in flames. U.S. officials believe he is intent on maintaining his power. For now, U.S. officials appear prepared to accept that, if Saddam unconditionally withdraws from Kuwait and releases all Americans and other foreign nationals held hostage. In part they are amenable to such a near-term outcome because they do not believe a likely successor to Saddam would be any better for the United States and the rest of the world.
Although many see the attractiveness of attempting to use the current crisis to solve other problems relating to Saddam -- wiping out his potential nuclear capability, for example -- there is a view in the administration that sees a danger in overreaching. Drawing analogies to the Korean War, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur's decision to cross the 38th parallel and drive deep into North Korea in October 1950 eventually resulted in Chinese intervention and the extension of the conflict until 1953, this view holds that the United States should limit its immediate objectives to getting Iraq out of Kuwait, restoring the Kuwaiti government and freeing the hostages.
Although Bush has repeatedly equated the Iraqi leader with Adolf Hitler, the United States is described as willing to accept a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but only after Saddam withdraws from Kuwait and allows the Kuwaiti government to return to power. If at that point Saddam needs some face-saving device, the United States would be prepared to see that occur.
Officials believe there is an important role for Arab nations in any such scenario but see no hope for an all-Arab solution to the crisis, principally because only the United States can bring about a stabilization of the military situation.
U.S. officials believe that time may be on the side of Saddam, but they are not convinced that this must continue to be the case. But U.S. officials are clearly worried about the potential for a drawn-out encounter with the Iraqis while waiting for the United Nations-ordered economic sanctions to strangle the Iraqi economy and Saddam's war machine.
The U.S. policy of relying on the sanctions to force Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait lacks a crucial ingredient: a timetable for action. U.S. officials know that the longer it takes, the more difficult it will be to maintain public support for the effort and keep the world community together and the more likely it will become that there are cultural tensions with the Saudis over the presence of U.S. troops.
Equally important, the longer the current standoff drags on, the greater the danger that Saddam's message -- that this is a battle between Arabs and Americans -- will resonate in the Arab world.
U.S. officials anticipate that Saddam's strategy will be to appear as the aggrieved party in an effort to win support of other Arabs. While they believe there is still strong support for the U.S. position in key Arab countries such as Egypt, they recognize that this support could be eroded over time.
The economic blockade of Saddam was an attractive option for U.S. officials because of Iraq's dependence on imports for food and exports for the means to buy the food. But they have not even completed their analysis of where the sanctions will pinch first. Officials believe that if it is clear to the American people and other nations that the sanctions are beginning to hurt the Iraqis, it will be relatively easy to maintain support for the policy. But if there is no clear change of Iraqi behavior or lifestyle, then the dangers increase that public support will collapse.
U.S. officials are going to extraordinary lengths to work through the United Nations and to rally multinational support for the confrontation with Saddam because they believe there is a larger objective than simply stopping his aggression.
These officials are said to believe that the world is on the brink of a new order, growing out of the demise of superpower conflicts that have ruled for the past four decades. This crisis, they believe, may shape the future, and if Saddam is allowed to be rewarded for his aggression -- and the United States and other nations shown to be impotent in the face of his actions -- then other brigands will be encouraged in the future.
But if this crisis is successfully resolved, with the restoration of the Kuwaiti government and Saddam put back behind his own borders, officials believe the United Nations could begin to fulfill its mission as a forum for conflict resolution.
Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.