DESPITE DIRECT TALKS BETWEEN WASHINGTON AND BAGHDAD AND the release of all the hostages, the countdown to war is nearing zero hour. President Bush's "last mile" effort to avert war through direct talks with Iraq may be no more than a gesture to placate critics, and Saddam Hussein may not take a way out even if it is offered.
To make his intention to use force believable, President Bush has ordered more than 400,000 troops to Saudi Arabia and the surrounding waters. As leaves are cancelled and enlistments extended, the nation is on a war footing for the first time since the massive intervention in Vietnam.
Both the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff hope that threatening war, followed by face-to-face talks, will avoid war, but the massive troop deployments and escalating rhetoric are creating their own momentum. The arguments for "getting it over with" before the holy month of Ramadan, before the morale of the troops in the desert sinks further, before the April heat sets in, or before Saddam completes the "crude atomic weapon" the United States says he is building are becoming more insistent and more shrill.
War is the great tempter of nations, and first Saddam, and now the president of the United States, have fallen victim. "Throw yourself off the parapet," the tempter challenged Jesus, and the angels will be your parachute. Do something foolish and count on your God to save you. When that didn't work, the tempter promised the world. "All these I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage," he says to Jesus after he has taken him to the mountaintop and "showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory."