With war drums beating and war guns moving massively into place, the Persian Gulf gives the appearance of a battle zone waiting to erupt. Even the timetable is being more precisely defined with each passing day. Gulf temperatures have cooled since those scorching days of August, and February sandstorms have yet to play havoc with helicopters and other modern armaments.
For three months, George Bush and Saddam Hussein have had a mutual problem. To give credibility to their staring-down diplomacy, each has tried to convince the other that he is prepared to pay the price of going to war.
For President Bush, this has meant a military buildup in Saudi Arabia and Gulf waters that quickly checkmated any Iraqi advance beyond Kuwait and now is reaching dimensions that would permit an offensive strike. For Mr. Hussein, the game has been to rebuff an unprecedented international coalition ranged against him that includes his rivals for Arab supremacy plus the Soviet Union and France, his chief armorers. The worse the situation, the greater his bellicosity.
If it comes to fighting, the Iraqi dictator would probably have little difficulty rallying and disciplining his people. Mr. Bush's domestic difficulties in a democracy are more complex. His decision to rush 200,000 military personnel to Saudi Arabia was initially popular. It succeeded visibly in stopping Iraq from seizing the world's richest oil fields. And it offered a glimpse of a post-Cold War world in which the American-Soviet power duopoly of 45 years would be replaced by a Security Council in which all five permanent members would enforce the peace under undoubted U.S. leadership.
This is heady stuff. Yet if it comes to war, Mr. Bush still has to worry whether he can carry public opinion with him. So far, most Americans seem to have accepted the need to prevent a regional power from gobbling up a smaller neighbor. They do not accept, however, the prospect of a war for oil or for the restoration of an autocratic sheikdom. Even the plight of hostages has failed to paralyze Americans with fear, as Mr. Hussein had hoped, or enflame them for battle, which is the main White House propaganda ploy of the moment.
Mr. Bush, who plans to spend Thanksgiving with the troops, is right to increase U.S. forces; it improves chances for military success and provides time for pressure diplomacy. He is right, too, to amass a superior force in hope of quick victory.
Most Americans, Mr. Bush included, would vastly prefer a diplomatic to a military option. Heightened rhetoric in recent days does not preclude a prolonged standoff since the U.S. has already achieved the presence in the Gulf it has long desired. But if the issue finally is settled with guns, not drums, the president's highest priority will be to justify the sacrifices and consequences in ways more convincing than his latest mixed messages.