UNTIL AUGUST 6, the United States was demonstrating at every turn its abdication from the exercise of power.
Helmut Kohl steamrollered the unification of Germany against the deep anxiety of virtually every non-German European over 30, and then won their acquiescence, approval and applause. The U.S. gave tepid support but basically played no role in the most fundamental change of the year.
Tremendous support and organization gathered for a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, to bring communist satellites into both democracy and capitalism. The U.S. played a passive role as a capital subscriber on a level with Italy in a new development bank for the purpose.
In a display of diplomatic photo opportunities, President Bush declared war on the Andean drug trade and then did not fight it, which would have entailed massive investments in an alternative economy for the Andes.
There was no mystery about this decline. Money is power. The United States had suddenly become the biggest debtor in the world, and could not throw money around as it did when it was supreme.
And then came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, following an obsequious diplomacy in which the U.S. had given Iraq's dictator carte blanche to pursue his border dispute with Kuwait, without realizing Saddam Hussein meant to gobble up the whole place.
Several aspects were disquieting. First was Saddam Hussein's perfect mimicry of the aggression by European dictators and Japanese generals in the 1930s that the Untied States and allies fought World War II to undo. The second was his move to control one-quarter of world oil production in hopes of dictating the market and the world economy. The third was the clear indication that he would use greater oil wealth to underwrite weapons of greater reach and destruction.
He already has artillery that outshoots U.S. guns. His quest for nuclear weapons resumed after the Israeli air raid in 1981. He has missiles, and he manufactures nerve gas. Experts believe he has the capability of germ warfare. Though he talks of Israel to attract Arab support, he has hurled his war machine at Iran, Kuwait and Iraqi minorities. There is really no telling what he would hit next.
Mr. Hussein had one more reason to provoke this crisis. He is hopelessly in debt and apparently never intended to repay any of it. Economically, he needed to demobilize, a prospect he found intolerable. So he acted.
And on August 6, President Bush reacted, pushing through the U.N. Security Council unprecedented resolutions demanding Iraq leave Kuwait. The next day the president announced dispatch of a thin line of American troops to Saudi Arabia's oil-field border with Kuwait. Then he organized the world in support. He showed that there is no world division for Iraq's dictator to exploit.
Meanwhile, Gen. Colin Powell and colleagues threw blocking troops, an aerial armada and a naval blockade into the conflict zone with blinding speed. Americans were thrilled. The display of military zest was so awesome that Arab, European and Asian countries joined in. Never mind the problems of coordination that have probably not been solved. They needed to show which side they are on.
Even Argentina, with economic problems that began with world ostracism in reaction to its World War II sympathy with Nazi Germany, sent a warship to the Gulf. Argentine and British warships sail side by side in the same cause.
It is two months since all this began. What is desperately required is for the U.S. to remember what it started: a military defense of Saudi Arabia from potential attack, and an economic boycott to force Iraq out of Kuwait. You hear a lot of comment that this may not be working and bombing may be required. Presumably such talk is disinformation designed for the attention of Saddam Hussein. He should believe it; we should not.
We should listen rather to our surprising new ally, Gen. Mikhail A. Moiseyev, chief of the Soviet general staff, who says the U.S. strategy is working and requires patience on the part of its inventors. He, of all people, says that blowing up things is wrong.
Is this effort a show of American resolve in the new world order, or a nostalgic swan dive in an abandoned role, like Britain's 1982 reconquest of the Falkland Islands. President Bush and the United States have much to win or lose. Winning means budging Iraq out of Kuwait without war. Losing means acquiescing in Iraq's conquest. Unleashing a war of destruction, with the loss of allies and trashing of the economy, also means losing. Squelching a war that a suicidal Saddam Hussein insisted on starting, would be winning.
Staying the course in the Gulf is essential in the cause of resurrecting the American world role. But even more necessary to that is reversing the economic decline that mandated the previous abdication of power.
The budget agreement between President Bush and congressional leaders was the first meaningful attempt to reverse the deficit. It was only a first step in a longer campaign that, like the one in the Persian Gulf, would require prolonged purpose and patience. And liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives agreed that they weren't having any part of it.
The Gulf crisis and the failed budget compromise were equally part of the effort to restore American power and influence. The alternative is to accept greater chaos in a dangerous world.