President Bush, having fumbled his first diplomatic overture to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, yesterday held out a more modest offer to Baghdad in hopes of either engaging Saddam in a real dialogue or demonstrating that it cannot be done.
According to administration officials and outside analysts, Bush's proposal for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz next week, if realized, is not likely to provide the climactic turn in the Persian Gulf crisis. Rather, the meeting could pave the way for Baker to finally meet the Iraqi leader who counts -- Saddam. But even then officials said they do not know if a successful settlement of the crisis can be found.
"Tariq Aziz is not the power behind the throne, but he can be an emissary and a funnel to the throne," said an administration official. "You have to have this intermediate stage."
Officials said Baker's trip to Europe and the Middle East beginning Sunday -- just 10 days before the United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait -- has other goals as well. These include avoiding any flurry of third-party negotiations with Iraq, bolstering the international coalition and calming any restiveness in Congress over the administration's handling of the gulf crisis.
But an important purpose remains to test, once again, the prospects for direct diplomacy with Iraq, a political prerequisite to the use of military force. In his surprise announcement Nov. 30 that the United States was willing to hold such talks, Bush said he feared that Saddam was not getting the message that he should vacate Kuwait "and the best way to get that across is one on one, Baker looking him right in the eye."
Yesterday's gesture is something less, a meeting in Geneva that White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged was "the next best offer."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), while praising Bush for continuing to probe for opportunities to settle the crisis, said he was disappointed that the White House would settle for just a meeting with Aziz. "The president originally wanted Baker to meet with Saddam to make sure his message got through Saddam's sycophantic advisers. Now, the president is settling for a sycophantic adviser," he said.
Some senior officials said they remain hopeful that Baker will wind up in Baghdad before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline. They said the letter that Baker is planning to give Aziz to pass along to Saddam, while restating the anti-Iraqi coalition demands for unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, could put some pressure on Saddam for such a face-to-face session.
But analysts cautioned that Saddam has been inscrutable and repeatedly defied expectations in recent months. Many believed he would take up Bush's terms, and he did not. "There are differing opinions here about what he might do now," a State Department official said.
That first overture flopped, in part, because Bush changed the ground rules after his initial announcement, analysts said. Although he originally had proposed the meeting with Saddam before Jan. 15, Bush later said Baker would not meet Saddam after Jan. 3, touching off a fruitless debate over scheduling -- and giving Saddam a chance to make the date an issue.
"It is part of Iraqis and Americans not understanding each other," said James Placke, an international consultant who served as a top State Department official for the region. "The Iraqis look very carefully and literally at what leaders say." When Bush changed his offer, Placke said, "The Iraqi reaction was, 'What's going on here? Something is up. They have changed the rules. We're suspicious of that. And nobody is going to dictate to us.' "
Some analysts also remain doubtful that Saddam is ready for productive talks with Baker. Peter Rodman, a former National Security Council staff member now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the risks of meeting Aziz are low but that Saddam may use diplomacy to stall for time and further frustrate the international coalition.
"My premise is, he is not ready to yield," Rodman said. "My worry is he will be willing to use diplomacy as a weapon. He may try to string it out. What if he asks for six more meetings? How do we walk away from the table?"
He added, "A meeting with Saddam will be great drama. All the world will be hanging on it. Our ability to deflect phony proposals will be harder. I think there will be enormous pressure on us."
But if Saddam refuses to even see Baker, Rodman said, "Our point is proved. The president has to show he made the effort."
Bush, in a move that surprised Arab coalition partners as well as many of his own mid-level aides, had originally invited Aziz to come to Washington in December. But many senior U.S. officials have said they believed that Aziz could not make any major decisions for Saddam, who tightly controls his government. The CIA has told Bush that Aziz is not in Saddam's inner circle of advisers. But he has played a significant role in moving Iraq into the mainstream of global diplomacy in recent years.
Aspin said he was worried that without direct U.S. talks with Saddam, others would try to fill the void. "Diplomatic entrepreneurs are going to beat a path to Baghdad looking for a settlement," he said. "They are going to talk to Saddam and the United States isn't. If the time comes when Bush has to declare that Saddam won't settle peacefully, he's going to be second-guessed by those who have talked to Saddam directly."