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Bush is playing 'chicken' not only with Saddam, but with the U.N. and allies, as well

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Brinkmanship, the tactic of threatening war while hoping to win concessions without actually having to fight, is undergoing a transformation in the U.S.-Iraq crisis, experts say.

Not only is the Bush administration confronting its prospective enemy in war, Iraq, it is also pushing diplomatic confrontations to the brink, risking irreparable damage to the United Nations and decades-old European alliances that have shaped world affairs since the end of World War II.

"There are two levels of brinkmanship," said Nicholas Miller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus. The first, he said, is "between the U.S. and Iraq, but also between the U.S. and France and the U.N. and Russia and so forth."

The labyrinth of diplomacy has, whether by design or accident, combined old-fashioned political staring contests with the practice of such esoteric concepts as gaming theory -- the idea that strategic interaction among two or more sides can produce some level of gain for everyone.

"I would say they are doing game theory intuitively to some degree," said Thomas Schelling, an economist who did pioneering research in conflict negotiation in the early 1960s and whose "chicken" theory has been invoked to describe the Bush posture toward Iraqu leader Saddam Hussein.

"Chicken" -- in which drivers race toward each other at full speed and the loser is the one who swerves out of the path of collision first -- was one of Schelling's most potent metaphors in his 1960 book, "The Strategy of Conflict.

In that book Schelling proposes that one of the strongest bargaining tools in a confrontation can be one side binding itself to an irreversible decision. He likens it to a game of chicken in which one driver throws his steering wheel out the window as a signal to the other player that it is impossible for him to change course, thus forcing the other to do so or risk catastrophe.

In Schelling's view, President Bush's steering wheel long ago exited the driver's side window.

"He's not skating to the side. I think he knows if Saddam Hussein will not step aside there's going to be a collision and he's prepared to go to war," Schelling said. "Bush is getting into a position where he can't turn back."

With Bush unable to change course, and not knowing what Saddam will do, the United States is "gaming" those around the Iraqi dictator, as well. American diplomats have signaled that they risk prosecution if they defend Saddam, but that they might be left in power, or at least left alone, if they help to topple him. U.S. officials also have advised Iraqi military commanders not to fight, guaranteeing their safety if they surrender.

"The most likely possibility [short of war] could be a coup or something like that," said Miller. "From that point of view, that's why it would be useful to get U.N. Security Council authorization."

Inside the U.N., experts also see strong evidence of diplomatic brinkmanship, with the United States all but daring the organization to make itself irrelevant should it fail to grant a resolution authorizing force to disarm Iraq.

To win that game, however, the United States must round up nine votes on the Security Council in hopes of isolating France, which has threatened to veto any war resolution, while also avoiding vetoes by Russia or China.

"It doesn't mean it passes, it just means you push France to the brink and dare them to be the one to veto it," said Peter Singer, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. "There is some belief that if we can get those nine votes and push it through the majority, then the French won't be able to stand up and be the only ones vetoing."

Brinkmanship's post-World War II history began with John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower.

"You have to take chances for peace just as you must take chances in war," Dulles said in a 1956 article in Life Magazine. "The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost."

One of the classic examples was John F. Kennedy's confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But in that instance, notes historian J. Howell Smith, of Wake Forest University, the nature of the confrontation was clearer, with two superpowers squared off and no significant sideline players.

"The important thing was that both [Kennedy] and Khrushchev worked out a way for both sides to claim they had won and to save face at home. In that way they had accomplished victory without war," Smith said. In that sense, the Bush-Saddam face-off is a new permutation, with ancillary confrontations among allies and a showdown diplomatically between the United States and most of the rest of the world, represented by the United Nations.

For the Bush administration, however, a war with Iraq might simply constitute something as old as education: an object lesson.

"I think one of the major outcomes of the Gulf War was an incredible demonstration of our military capability, and I think that was sort of an unintended byproduct of the Gulf War," said Dan Derby, a professor of International Law at Touro University on Long Island. "Here I think it may be an intended aspect -- that we want to show what we are able to do when we are dealing with what we consider a rogue nation."

Even when we have to do it alone.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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