In rounding up support for U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iraq and in building the multinational force on the Arabian Peninsula, President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have displayed a strong penchant for global logrolling.
Pursuing the goal of isolating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they have made repeated gestures or offers of help to allies and onetime enemies in exchange for solidarity in the alliance and help in bringing off the climactic vote at the Security Council, expected today, authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
These tradeoffs have bestowed valuable symbolic concessions on those countries willing to play the game. For instance, Baker extended a hand to China this week, inviting its foreign minister to Washington for a wide-ranging meeting -- a gesture made despite Beijing's continued suppression of internal dissent. Last week, a smiling Bush posed for a photograph -- and then met for three hours privately -- with President Hafez Assad of Syria, a dictator who has been as ruthless as Saddam and whose nation remains on the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism.
For Bush and Baker, such overtures were based on the calculation that the benefits of China's cooperation on the Security Council and Syria's commitment to the multinational force outweighed the risks of sending a signal to these regimes that overlooks their objectionable behavior. Some outside analysts, however, said the risks of doing this are real.
While such diplomatic gamesmanship is not a new phenomenon, it has become a particularly distinctive feature in this pragmatic, non-ideological administration and in its handling of the Persian Gulf crisis.
For Bush and Baker, putting pressure on Saddam is a complex problem of managing coalitions. The international community is in general agreement on the principle of opposing the Iraqi invasion. But when it comes to taking action against Saddam, the coalition begins to splinter, and both Bush and Baker have been struggling to hold it together, making whatever deals they can to satisfy the alliance partners.
In the case of the Soviet Union, this cooperative effort is part of the broader thaw in superpower relations that started before the gulf crisis and will likely outlast it. One early U.S. concession in this crisis, at the Helsinki summit, was to invite the Soviet Union into an expanded role in the Middle East. The United States has also heeded Soviet demands that any military action in the gulf be first sanctioned by the Security Council.
But in other cases, Bush and Baker appear to be making deals as the need arises. The administration pushed Congress to forgive about $7 billion in Egypt's military debt to the United States. It has allowed Turkey to ship up to 50 percent more textiles to the American market. It has sent new weapons to Israel.
It has also played a major role in arranging for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to send billions to other members of the coalition in need. Yesterday, the Saudis announced an aid offer to Moscow, with which they recently established diplomatic relations.
"I think the president has decided that coalition-building is more important than anything else at the moment," said Raymond Tanter, a University of Michigan political science professor who wrote a critical study of U.S. decision-making in the Lebanon crisis of the early 1980s, "Who's at the Helm?"
Tanter noted that Bush has a "unique opportunity" to build coalitions that could not exist during the Cold War years across East-West blocs. And, he said, economic inducements have proven a valuable tool. One of the potential benefits now to Syria, China and the Soviet Union for cooperating with the United States is the prospect of aid and trade later. While all three nations have different motivations in the gulf, he added, all "need a bailout."
Referring to the news photos of Bush and Assad together in Geneva, Tanter said: "That smile on the front page . . . . is worth a billion dollars" to the Syrian leader.
Assad has brutally repressed dissent in his own country and launched a renewed effort to dominate Lebanon in recent months, a move some critics say was met with only faint protest by the Bush administration. The improved U.S.-Syrian relationship has also caused acute discomfort in Israel, which has fought three wars against Syria.
The Reagan administration "would have been much tougher on Syria, but they were not faced with the need to hold Syria in the anti-Iraq coalition," he said. "George Bush in the scheme of things made the right choice in trading off Lebanon's territorial integrity in favor of keeping Syria on board . . . but I worry about the precedent it sets in Assad's mind -- that he can get away with other adventures -- say vis-a-vis Israel -- as a result of the fact that he thinks the administration will look the other way. The problem is that tactical calculations are good in the short run but they might blow up in your face in the mid-term."
Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China, said the Beijing leadership "will attach great importance" to Baker's invitation this week to Foreign Minister Qian Qichen to make his first visit to Washington since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. "They will use this as further evidence for their domestic audience that China has rejoined the world community and it is more or less business as usual," he said.
The Bush administration sought to isolate Beijing last year, and only a few months ago Bush said China had not improved its human rights record sufficiently for sanctions to be eased. Administration officials acknowledged that the invitation to Qian was an overture directly linked to the gulf vote; one official said the expected criticism was not too high a price to pay for success at the United Nations. Such criticism came yesterday from Asia Watch, a human rights group, which said the invitation to Qian "gave the wrong message at the wrong time."
Lord said Bush had been "extremely skillfull" in assembling the international coalition against Saddam. But he said China's performance on human rights had not earned it a cabinet-level meeting in Washington. China has been cooperative in the gulf and in the diplomatic efforts on Cambodia, he said, because it reflects Beijing's national interests and its desire to regain global respect.
This "benign" foreign policy sharply contrasts, he said, with a "malign control" of internal dissent at home. "In terms of the domestic situation in China, it continues to be very grim," he said.