MIHAIL GORBACHEV may have come up with a peace plan that will avert a ground war in the Middle East. As this is written, Saddam Hussein has not responded to the Soviet proposal, which couples Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait with certain assurances that Saddam's regime will be spared further punishment. With the US-led coalition forces ready for a massive assault on Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq, however, there are good reasons for Saddam to respond to Gorbachev's initiative. Surely everyone would like to avoid a horrific ground war. And yet reaction to the Soviet plan, to the extent the details are known, is divided. Not so much between those who hope Gorbachev succeeds and those who fear he will fail; but between those who hope he succeeds and those who hope he will fail.
Why should anyone hope that Gorbachev's mediation effort proves to be futile - especially if the result is to make the ground war virtually inevitable? The principal reason is that the Kuwait episode has been shaping up as a pivotal event in modern Middle East history. While there have been many dire predictions about chaos in the region after the war, there also have been reasons to believe that the elimination of Saddam's capability to meddle in the affairs of his neighbors would set in motion a constructive dynamic for comprehensive peace in the region. An inconclusive end to the conflict - even though Saddam would be out of Kuwait - could abort other promising developments in the area. Like:
Postwar stability. With Saddam still in power and commanding a military that, though battered, is still the strongest warmaking machine in the Middle East, long-term stability in the region may remain a desert mirage. Saddam will not be chastened, and he will remain a focal point for Arab resentments against the West, against Israel, and against moderate Arabs who joined the coalition against Iraq.
The Palestinian issue. It has been widely hoped that the Gulf war could be a catalyst for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. But the political survival of Saddam - Israel's most dangerous Arab foe and now the hero of militant Palestinians - will hardly incline Israel to new peace talks on the occupied territories.
These are not reasons to support a ground war. They are, though, reasons to examine closely the fine print in the Soviet plan and to hold out for a settlement that promises more than just a temporary respite from conflict in that troubled region.