Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said yesterday that a partial withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait without war would be "a partial victory" and that a complete withdrawal by Saddam Hussein of his forces "would be a victory almost regardless of what else is agreed upon around the edges."
Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which has just completed three weeks of hearings on the Persian Gulf crisis, generally has backed President Bush's approach, including the need for a "credible military threat." In putting his emphasis yesterday on a diplomatic solution and even acceptance of a partial withdrawal from Kuwait, Aspin "believed he was saying things the administration could not say," according to a source close to him.
In advocating diplomacy backed by a credible military threat as the most promising course for solving the gulf crisis within the next few months, Aspin took a sharply different view from what Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have said recently about the "nightmare scenario" in which Iraq withdraws from most of Kuwait on the eve of the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline but continues to occupy a disputed oil field on the Kuwait-Iraq border and two islands off the Kuwaiti coast.
On Monday, Baker warned against such "a last-minute withdrawal ploy" by Saddam, and Bush declared that the United States would not yield "one single inch" in its demand that Iraq withdraw completely from Kuwait.
"None of us wants war," Bush said, "but none of us is prepared to accept a partial solution."
Aspin said after the speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here that he would expect that the United Nations and the Bush administration would continue its economic sanctions against Iraq if only a partial withdrawal took place, but that any threat of force to regain the remaining Kuwaiti territory would not be credible.
"It will be difficult to see how the American people would believe that war was still necessary," he said.
"Some will not be happy" with a diplomatic solution that leads to full or partial withdrawal, Aspin said, but added, "I believe the test of a diplomatic solution is the extent of the compliance with the U.N. resolutions."
Bush has consistently maintained that any solution of the gulf crisis will rest on Saddam completely accepting all terms of the U.N. resolutions condemning the invasion of Kuwait.
Meanwhile, another key House Democrat, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.), yesterday said he thought Bush could win congressional approval of a resolution authorizing use of force in the gulf but warned that the margin would not be overwhelming.
Foley also asserted that Bush would have to take the initiative in seeking such a vote and said he does not know now whether the president will do so.
"I think probably more likely than not the president would get an affirmative vote" if he seeks authorization from Congress, Foley said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "It will not be an overwhelmingly total consensus for the president going to offensive military action. That will not happen. It will be a divided vote, in my opinion."
Foley did not say how he would vote but noted that he has urged continued reliance on economic sanctions to force Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
While asserting that Bush has a constitutional and legal obligation to seek congressional authorization before taking offensive military action against Iraq, Foley said this should not lead Saddam to believe that Bush lacks the power to act without coming first to Congress. "If Saddam Hussein thinks over in Baghdad the president doesn't have the power, he is grossly mistaken and dangerously mistaken," Foley said.
Aspin said that although the Bush administration has denied negotiations are underway with Baghdad, "it certainly appears that negotiations are going on, not quietly, but very publicly."
He said Baker's statement that the United States would not attack Iraq if its troops were pulled out of Kuwait indicated one step; Saddam's release of all the hostages was another; and the abandonment of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait was a third.
That record, Aspin said, "has raised the possiblity of a diplomatic solution to the crisis."
He drew a parallel between the current gulf situation and the U.S. and Soviet actions that surrounded the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
"We might agree to do something after the crisis that we intended to do anyway," Aspin said referring to the Kennedy administration's removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey after the crisis.
"We might, for example, agree to a peace conference to discuss the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian issue," Aspin said of the current situation, "or we might agree, as we already have, to negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait about the border after an Iraqi withdrawal."
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.