The 'Near War' And 'The Bedouin Way'

No war, but near war," is the way one senior Jordanian official summarizes the strategy of the West and its allies in the gulf: brinkmanship meant to intimidate Saddam Hussein into unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. Last week's talk of deploying perhaps 100,000 additional U.S. troops was one more way of turning up the heat on the Iraqi strongman. So, too, were CIA director William Webster's off-the-record but widely repeated remarks that the West is unlikely to get out of the impasse without a fight. Friends of Francois Mitterrand weighed in, telling reporters the French president thinks war is "imminent."

The temperature is high enough for even key allies to be having second thoughts. Last week Prince Sultan bin Abdel-aziz, the Saudi Arabian Defense minister, revived the idea of an "Arab solution" to the gulf crisis. There is "no harm," he said, in any Arab country giving a "sister" nation "land, money or an outlet to the sea." A clearly nettled Bush administration said Sultan was misunderstood. In fact, quiet efforts at dialogue already have taken place. But because Washington's partners cant be seen breaking ranks, and because Saddam himself is, in the words of a sympathetic Arab leader, "a primitive on the international scene," communications have been the diplomatic equivalent of charades: all body language and inference.

A case in point: Saddam's surprise decision to release all 327 French hostages held in Iraq. Was it a response to France's diplomatic initiatives or merely an effort to divide Western ranks? The answer, most probably, is both. According to an Arab source privy to the negotiations, the process went something like this: PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, having sided all too publicly with Saddam early in the crisis, was anxious to position himself more neutrally as a go-between. Mitterrand's September speech to the United Nations provided an opening. The French president suggested that an Iraqi expression of willingness to withdraw from Kuwait could make dialogue possible. He also embraced the idea of broad solutions for the region's other problems, including the Palestine question. After discussions with French officials including Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, Arafat told Saddam that France could go no further. Baghdad would have to make a gesture; in response.

Last week Baghdad did just that with the release of the French hostages. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz declared that France had made "declared and undeclared" efforts for a peaceful settlement. In response, Saddam wants the West and its Arab allies to state their intentions. Would it be enough for him to leave Kuwait? Or would they come after him anyway?

There is a risk the allies themselves are unsure just where they've drawn the line. Bush's aggressiveness has raised concerns in Europe and the Arab world and even among U.S. diplomats in the Mideast. Their worry: the bargaining in this bazaar may drown in rhetoric and fears of lost face. As a U.S. Senate staffer puts it, "The analogy that most often comes to mind is August 1914."

Bottom line: Sultan's statement suggested nervousness, but not a break with Washington. His brother King Fahd squelched any such talk. Since U.S. troops began landing on their soil the week after the invasion, the Saudis have been at least as bellicose as Washington, pushing for a quick and decisive resolution. Several reports suggest they want to be rid of Saddam altogether. But if they settle for less, they also know they'll have to live with Saddam for some time to come. The equivocation in Washington about its real bottom line seems to have left them wondering just how far the United States is really prepared to go. Reflection on the consequences of an Iraqi second strike may also give them pause. In fact, before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the Saudis had encouraged a Kuwaiti compromise on control of a pair of islands in the northern gulf and a share of the disputed Rumaila oilfield. Meanwhile Sultan emphasized the ultimate American exit: any permanent alliance between an Arab state and a non-Arab state is, he said, "unacceptable." In the end, PLO elder statesman Khaled al-Hassan may be right. "It can't be solved by arms," he said the day Kuwait was invaded. "It will have to be solved by kings and presidents, in the old Arab, Bedouin way."