WASHINGTON — Washington. WHEN THE Secretary of State stood in the Saudi Arabian sand and told American soldiers they were really at home because ''Americans are at home wherever our principles are,'' an unenthralled soldier responded, ''Let's do something or go.''
It will not suffice to say to the soldier that, like an ICBM in Wyoming or a battalion in Germany, the Desert Shield deployment is doing something -- deterrence, containment. The Bush administration is risking an indispensable military asset, public opinion, because it says the goal in the Gulf is not just deterrence and containment -- but then gives a garbled message about what the goal is.
Mr. Baker told the soldiers we must not make the sort of mistakes made ''in the 1930s,'' but many of the soldiers hearing him do not remember Elvis, much less Mussolini. The president says the soldiers are there because a principle is involved. Is it that (as Mr. Baker told the troops) ''All nations have a right to be free, free from aggression''? Or is it (as Mr. Baker also said) that we are establishing ''a whole new international order''? That may take a while.
Mr. Bush says, ''I'm not trying to sound the tocsin of war'' but ''I've had it'' with Saddam, who is more brutal than Hitler. (Mr. Bush meant that Hitler never abused an embassy. A continent, but not an embassy.) Mr. Bush says, ''We're prepared to give the sanctions time to work,'' but ''sand is running through the glass. I don't think the status quo can go on forever.'' There is much room between three months and forever, and surely Mr. Bush must wait much longer.
When the embargo was imposed, the question was: Why will this embargo succeed when so many have failed? There are reasons for optimism. Iraq is dependent on a single export; Iraq's military machine depends on spare parts. But if the necessarily protracted process of economic attrition is really a strategy against Mr. Hussein rather than a stratagem to lull Americans while a war-fighting capability is assembled, then the embargo must be given much more time. Otherwise, an outbreak of war will be accompanied by a presidency-breaking outburst of cynicism.
Mr. Bush says that Iraq's aggression will be reversed, but that the Desert Shield deployment is ''wholly defensive.'' But it cannot be that, if it is to be credible as an alternative to the embargo as a means of establishing the status quo ante (ante August 2).
That reiterated goal precludes declaring every day a victory of containment and bringing some of Desert Shield home. To do so would involve defining victory merely as deterrence.
But Mr. Baker almost makes that our goal when he suggests U.S. participation in permanent ''regional security structures,'' presumably to contain Mr. Hussein, as U.S. forces in NATO and Korea have been deterring aggression for decades.
The vice president, saying he is repeating something Mr. Baker believes, says that even if Iraq withdraws unconditionally from Kuwait, ''we would have to go beyond that'' because Mr. Hussein cannot be allowed to keep the weapons he has (chemical and biological) or acquire those he desires (nuclear). Mr. Hussein, says Dan Quayle, is a murderer and a terrorist who is destroying a nation ''and that cannot be tolerated.''
Now, never mind that our new-found friend, Syria's Hafez al Assad, is a mass murderer and a certified (by the U.S. government) terrorist who is devouring Lebanon. Mr. Quayle's principle makes the embargo and Desert Shield (punitive deterrence) merely the thin end of a large wedge -- a global U.S. duty to punish aggression and impose certain kinds of arms control. If so, American military personnel are going to see much of the world.
And they should bring along the judiciary. Mr. Bush says he is not preparing the nation for war. But he is warning Mr. Hussein about war-crimes trials.
A ''top official'' tells the New York Times, ''It's the budget mess all over again -- flip-flops, a message out of control and nobody in charge.'' Another official says, ''We seem to be zig-zagging because sometimes it's less a matter of a game plan and more a matter of the president's moods.''
An expression like ''I've had it'' confuses autobiography with foreign policy, and Mr. Bush's subjectivism goes further. About Saddam Hussein and Hitler, Mr. Bush says: ''I don't think I'm overstating it. I know I'm not overstating the feelings I have about it.''
Feelings, facts, what's the difference? A lot, actually. This president wants to seem to be so serious about substance that he does not worry about style. He should be told that incoherence is a substantive, not merely stylistic, defect.