WASHINGTON — THE PERSIAN Gulf impasse is getting more muddled by the day, and public support is beginning to erode.
President Bush balks at sounding a certain trumpet. He'd have to admit he dispatched 250,000 troops to protect world oil supply. If he did that, he might be accused of trading American boys for cheap gas. So he insists oil had nothing to do with it. "AgJimFaingression, not oil," he repeats, adding a few horrors at the rape of Kuwait and Saddam Hussein as Hitler of the 1990s.
Well, Saddam is several things, none of them nice, but Hitler's not among them. Hitler was a world-class thug, a threat to civilization; Saddam is bush league.
While aggression and rape are deplorable, they've flourished throughout the post-war era, and we've intervened only when we thought our vital interests at stake. Syria's Hafez Assad is raping Lebanon at the moment, even as we welcome him and his troops (if they ever arrive) as allies.
Bush seems addicted to this kind of subterfuge. He used it on both sides of the budget summit row. It was the hallmark of his campaign: Pledge of Allegiance, flag factories, Boston harbor, Willie Horton, read my lips. All primly dismissed after the election as ancient history. Perhaps he learned from his old mentor, Richard Nixon, who disguised everything he did as something else.
Won't work in the long pull. The only way to insure sustained support is to build a convincing case out of the naked truth.
Given its tragic toll, war is -- and should be -- a hard sell. Many forget the years it took Franklin Roosevelt to convince the country World War II was worth fighting. The draft was saved by one vote in summer, 1941. Without Pearl Harbor, we would not have gone in when we did. (Ironically, the Japanese attacked because we'd cut off their oil.) Even so, we might have let Hitler off the hook had he not been stupid enough to declare war on us.
Since then, U.S. presidents have skipped formal declarations, even in such major wars as Vietnam and Korea (one defeat and one draw, please note). Yet a declaration is the commitment that says we're in this together and to stay.
If he hasn't already, President Bush ought to circle a date on his calendar to invade Kuwait. Unless Saddam meets our terms or we break him, he will control 45 percent of all oil. That would doom Israel and give him blackmail leverage over Europe and industrialized Asia. It would rupture our economy, lowering the standard of living.
That's worth fighting for. Given the balance of forces, with a little luck, the duration should be short and casualties, however painful, moderate. We should not wait past January, when the onrushing summer would doom us to another nine months in bivouac.
It would be nice to have a Churchill to explain all this, but you don't get those often. Even frenetic old George, fractured syntax and all, can manage if he'll stop drooling the poll-driven nonsense dreamed up by his image-makers and talk plain sense.
We need to act through the United Nations, too, tough as that selling job will be. Collective security's time has come. We can't police the globe by ourselves. One more reason the president of the United States needs to come out of his political closet and tell it exactly as it is, over and over again.