Waiting for disunity

Paul Greenberg

October 24, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

AND SO it begins: "American Mothers. Would you sell your baby boy for one barrel of crude oil from the Arabian Desert? WE DO NOT WANT WAR!"

For now, that protest is buried back in the bunion ads of Little Rock's Arkansas Gazette. But this lone voice is the harbinger of many more if the uncertainty in the Persian Gulf continues, or if American troops get bogged down in a desert version of Vietnam.

Hecklers already have begun interrupting presidential speeches.

In Washington, demonstrators poured oil in front of the American dTC Petroleum Institute. ("Hell, no, we won't go; we won't fight for Texaco.") The line is already clear: This isn't a war to save a small country that has been overrun, or to contain an aggressor; it's a war for oil. Saddam Hussein would be the first to agree; he's already marked off Kuwait's Rumaila oil field for himself.

The Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Detroit, Thomas Gumbleton, speaks of "our responsibility to speak out and oppose the U.S. action. U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf is the latest example of this country's war against the poor worldwide, following a pattern established in 1947 of U.S. military intervention against poor countries in order to protect the United States's wealth." The Cold War may be over abroad, but not at home. Only in the West may the Stalinist line of 1947 still be solemnly repeated.

For now such excrescences are an oddity. But let war come and sacrifice be demanded. Then prepare for a new birth of ideology, of history revised, and aggression ignored. Newspeak will be reborn, if it was ever dead. Whoever noted that the first casualty of war is truth may have been listening to the protesters.

Let it be said for the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Edmond L. Browning, that he can recognize an act of aggression when he sees one. But that doesn't necessarily mean he would oppose it.

"It seems to me," says the bishop, "that in order to seek a peaceful solution, we should move our troops out of there and any military presence, if there is to be one, be United Nations troops." No need to go into detail, namely that the international force there now has the approval of the U.N. Does the bishop believe that the world can talk Saddam Hussein out of his conquest?

No wonder Saddam Hussein decided to absorb his oil-rich little neighbor. He remembers the Vietnam Syndrome and is counting on a replay: an initial show of unity and outrage followed by increasing division, uncertainty, negotiation and then defeat. The politicians already have begun to dither.

In Washington, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware proposes a joint congressional committee for "deliberations" with the president over war or peace. Not since 1861, when Republican Radicals formed the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to "help" Abraham Lincoln, has the executive branch received so attractive an offer.

The first principle of military organization -- unity of command -- could then give way to a Committee of 18. It sounds like just what America needs right now: war or peace by committee. Or, more probably, neither war nor peace -- as anyone who knows how committees operate could predict. Instead, the country would probably get some mushy resolution designed to please everyone. Its interpretation could then fuel endless arguments and assure a divided front against aggression. Just like the Tonkin Resolution during the Vietnam War.

Sen. Biden already has proposed a joint congressional resolution that would give the commander-in-chief various powers -- for example, to strike back if Iraq attacks American troops or endangers American citizens. The major effect of such a resolution is to imply that the president doesn't have such powers already and thus undermine his constitutional authority.

The best thing Congress could do now is declare war on Iraq and get out of the way. Then the president would have a free hand and Saddam Hussein wouldn't know what to expect. Or when. Or if. The element of surprise, like the unity of command, would be preserved. But no course so sensible is likely to appeal to the artful dodgers and expert equivocators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They have just begun to quibble.

Here and there, now only on the edges of the news, come familiar little sounds. They are the first cracks in the national unity.

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