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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Mad Chess Game

Now, as the latest crisis in the Persian Gulf unfolds, I think that there are quite a few generals both in Washington and in Moscow looking back on the old days of the Cold War with a sigh of regret. In those days, relations between the superpowers were structured in much the same way as a chess game. In order to play the game more or less successfully, all one had to do was anticipate the interests of one's opponent. And the entire game of world politics revolved around the interests of these two "kings," Washington and Moscow. All the other countries of the world, depending on their geopolitical importance, could only pretend to one of the other, secondary roles. Opportunities for them to make their own moves outside this general game were extremely limited.

Today, the rules have been turned upside down. Now the game revolves around various ordinary pawns who have the power to threaten international security. Moreover, the purpose of the game is not just to put the insubordinate pawn back in his place. Instead, the great powers are struggling to figure out how to force the pawns to make a "legal" move. And if that weren't enough, as soon as one power decides finally to teach a pawn a lesson, the other starts taking steps to protect it.

In this mad chess game, the pawns have considerable room to maneuver. Sometimes, they are even able to make the grand masters dance to their tune. Consider North Korea, which so artfully blackmailed the world with the hypothetical possibility that it would create an atomic bomb and has come so close to achieving its dream of U.S. recognition and -- to top it all -- has nearly secured promises from other countries to modernize its nuclear reactors for free.

Now Iraq's Saddam Hussein is following this example. It is no secret that Iraq, albeit reluctantly, has met all the United Nations' demands concerning the dismantling of its weapons under international control. But when he realized that this would not be enough to secure the lifting of sanctions, Saddam played his only card -- the threat of violence. The declared goal of this move was to get the sanctions lifted. However, even if he was unable to achieve this, Saddam seems to have achieved another, undeclared goal: using the crisis to create a dispute between Russia and the United States.

It wasn't diffcult for Saddam to predict how Moscow and Washington would react to his ploy. As soon as Baghdad moved toward the Kuwaiti border, Clinton hurried to deploy his own troops. He most likely felt that this was his chance to deal with Saddam once and for all and finish the job George Bush had left undone. Achieving this would help silence domestic criticism of Clinton's foreign policy. However, Clinton -- perhaps without realizing it -- has put his most important foreign policy achievement, good relations with Russia, at risk.

Russia, of course, absolutely does not want to see another Desert Storm. What Russia really needs is the several billion dollars that Iraq owes, which can only be repaid after the UN embargo is lifted. It seemed that the latest flare-up of the situation has laid to rest hopes of seeing that money any time soon.

But this is the point where the clever pawn makes an unexpected move: He begins to withdraw his forces. As soon as Baghdad makes the slightest conciliatory gesture, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev shows up in Baghdad with an offer of Russian support for the lifting of sanctions in exchange for Iraqi recognition of Kuwait's sovereignty and a pledge to meet the UN's other demands.

It would seem, though, that Washington was not prepared for this "Korean" variant. After all, agreeing to the Iraqi-Russian formula would put the United States in a very awkward position: In order to affirm its decisiveness, the United States needs to settle the Saddam question once and for all.

The U.S. State Department has issued a statement saying that the Iraqi forces have not returned to their original positions. Moreover, the statement reads, "It would be highly inappropriate to reward Hussein only one week after his attempt to frighten the UN and Kuwait by agreeing to reconsider the question of easing sanctions."

The bottom line is that the Security Council has adopted a resolution that the Americans and the Russians are each interpreting in their own way. While Kozyrev is talking about guaranteeing peace through diplomacy, the Americans are claiming the right to use force at the first sign of hostile Iraqi intentions. The U.S. defense secretary has announced that Washington intends to deploy even more aircraft and tanks in the region, even if Iraq withdraws its forces. Moreover, American planes are ready to launch a preemptive strike if Iraqi forces enter the newly created buffer zone.

Such international outsiders as Iraq and the Bosnian Serbs are able to sour relations between Russia and the United States so easily because the great powers have such selective reactions to world events. After all, not every coup leads to a marine landing like we saw in Haiti. And not every large-scale military maneuver near disputed borders provokes a major mobilization of American troops like we have seen in the Persian Gulf lately. The loose association between crime and punishment creates the conditions for conflict between the interests of the superpowers that other countries can use to their advantage.

Whether we like it or not, each of these situations forces us to realize that the world needs a firm international law code that is considerably clearer than the UN charter. One that would compel all nations to react in unison during a crisis and, one can only hope, would eliminate the possibility of playing them off one against the other.

Alexander Golz is a political commentator for Krasnaya Zvezda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.