Opposition to U.S. military role begins to draw varied converts

September 29, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Democratic Representative Bob Traxler told his home district's Saginaw, Mich., newspaper recently that he was "unalterably opposed" to the United States' military entry into the Persian Gulf, Mr. Traxler made news all the way to Washington. He had become the first congressman to voice open dissent.

As he did, Mr. Traxler joined a small but growing list of opponents to U.S. involvement in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict, a band of dissenters that has broadened from the first wave of reflexive anti-war groups to include worried parents, church organizations, some mainstream policy analysts and even a few fervent militarists.

So far, they've hardly been noticed amid the 70 percent of Americans supporting President Bush's dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia. But if those critics' fears are born out, they could be writing the eventual script for a new, broad-based, anti-war movement.

What they say is that the United States is in too deep. It is losing its opportunity to win cleanly in the Arabian desert or to extract itself gracefully. And if that dilemma becomes more evident, if U.S. forces are kept indefinitely in Saudi Arabia, if lives are lost to no apparent purpose, the U.S. public's overwhelming support for Mr. Bush's policies rapidly will turn to impatience, anger and recrimination.

Even as bored men and women in the armed services write wistful letters about coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the critics are warning that the U.S. military commitment in the Persian Gulf should be measured not in months but more likely in years of ambiguous purpose and unresolved conflict.

Still, Mr. Bush's rating in the opinion polls remains high, and except for Mr. Traxler, very little criticism has risen yet from such likely sources as his Democratic colleagues. Sensing the political wind, Democratic National Chairman Ronald Brown recently declared, "Saddam Hussein will get no mixed signals from America or from this party."

But all of that notwithstanding, David Schilling, national program coordinator of the 75-year-old peace group, Fellowship of Reconciliation, sees a shift beginning to occur.

"It is not public opinion changing so much as the opinion makers," Mr. Schilling said. "People who tended to be more supportive of the Bush posture now have re-examined their positions based on just what kind of war it would be."

Some of the bleak descriptions of that potential war have come from such decidedly non-pacifist analysts as James H. Webb Jr., assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy in the Ronald Reagan administration, who has challenged the central idea of committing large numbers of U.S. troops.

"Those who have called for massive, pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq must now contemplate the detriment of tens of thousands of American soldiers within range of Iraqi chemical weapons, as well as possible terrorist attacks from Iraq and now Iran," he recently wrote.

Other conservatives -- among them former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and columnist Patrick Buchanan -- have been so critical of U.S. involvement that a rightist coalition held a news conference here last week essentially to certify that conservative support for Mr. Bush's Mideast policy was not fading away.

At the same time, one of those loyal conservatives, Sam Zahkem, a Lebanese-American who was Mr. Reagan's ambassador to the Persian Gulf oil nation of Bahrain, added, "This also was an expression that we don't want a long, drawn-out war, a la Vietnam."

At an opposite pole from most of the opposition are those who criticize the government for not attacking Iraq now, destroying Mr. Hussein's military capability and ensuring that there will be no need for a lingering U.S. presence -- as in Vietnam.

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