IN THE mid-afternoon heat yesterday, the United States Secretary of Defense, William Perry - a chunky, short figure in a pale brown uniform - marched across the tarmac at Kuwait airport to threaten war against Iraq. Half an hour later, Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister - tall and dapper in a pale blue suit - walked into the airport's VIP lounge and threatened peace. It was, to put it mildly, a very odd afternoon.
Who were we to believe; the American who talked of using force to encourage further troop withdrawals from southern Iraq or the Russian who had just been told by Saddam Hussein that he would at last recognise the new frontiers of Kuwait? Mr Perry began his speech by bellowing that further American troop reinforcements would be sent to the Gulf. Mr Kozyrev opened his address with these whispered words in Russian: 'I have brought good news to the people of Kuwait and to the whole Middle East, good news that this day the independence of Kuwait is reinforced.'
Perhaps it was as well that the Cold War was over. Back in the days of Jimmy Carter, the US Defense Secretary would have been urging peace while Leonid Brezhnev's men would have been warning of war if America bombed Iraq. To add to this transformation came the assertion yesterday from Senator John Warner, the former chief of the US Navy, who was standing next to Mr Perry, that: 'The lessons learned from the Gulf War, really made it possible for this swift deterrence to be put in place.' The real lesson of the Gulf war, of course, is that if President Saddam's regime had been toppled at the time, it wouldn't be neccesary to send all this 'deterrence' to the Middle East now.
Because words turned out to be so important in the initial phases of the last Gulf crisis, students of politics should perhaps study the following passages carefully. First, Mr Perry: 'We believe these (Republican Guard) troops must move north in order for Iraq to have honoured the pledge that it made . . . only when that happens will we consider a phased draw-down (sic) of our deployment. I want to be very clear on this. We will not bring our combat troops home as long as Iraq continues to threaten peace and stability in the Gulf . . . if heavy Iraqi units remain in the south, we will expand our current deployment and we will consult with our allies about the additional application of force as an appropriate response to the threat posed by Iraq.'
And here is Mr Kozyrev: 'The near neighbour of Kuwait, meaning Iraq, has in fact declared that it recognises the territorial borders and the sovereignty of Kuwait in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions on the subject, resolutions which the Russian Federation voted in favour of at the time. And now I believe that the hard page (sic) in the relations between the two countries has been turned.'
Russia, Mr Kozyrev insisted, was a guarantor of this proposal. It was necessary to use lawyers to ensure that the Iraqi proposal accorded exactly with the UN resolution. It was necessary to ensure that the Iraqi parliament agreed to pass the proposal.
Mr Kozyrev's Kuwaiti hosts, who would still like the Americans to destroy Iraq on their behalf, gritted their teeth at the side of the VIP hall. Consulting the Iraqi parliament - which is a mouse to Saddam's Command Council tiger - is not the kind of guarantee the Gulf Arabs are looking for, especially when the Russian bear has itself few claws left with which to scratch Saddam. Hearing that the Iraqi leader was 'in good form' when he met Mr Kozyrev did not change their view.
But Mr Perry's war-horse was itself a little lame. If the Americans claim - as they do - that they can never trust Saddam, then they can never bring their combat troops home as long as the Iraqi dictator remains in power. And America's 'allies', whom Mr Perry promised to consult about the 'application of force', are becoming a little divided just now. The French and the Americans are already insulting each other while the British yesterday criticised the Russian peace initiative. Furthermore, Mr Perry promised only to 'consult' with his allies on force - not to 'agree'.
So what is going on in the Gulf just now? Mr Perry said earlier in Saudi Arabia that he was sending another 20,000 US troops to the Gulf. This would be in addition to the 39,000 already supposed to be in the region. But sources in Kuwait believe that this figure is a lie, deliberately put about to impress the Iraqis, and that the actual number of US troops inside Kuwait is only around 1,500. Television crews who covered the last Gulf deployment have noticed that Kuwaiti airbases - which should be packed with incoming troop flights if the official figures are correct - are often empty of aircraft.
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