WASHINGTON — Washington. THREE DAYS after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, a senior White House official sighed: ''At least Congress is out of town.'' The president, crossing the White House lawn from his helicopter, was asked by reporters how he planned to respond. He snapped at the questioners, ''Listen, watch and learn.''
That set the tone for the first three months of this crisis. It has been the president's business: personal and private. But now that there soon may be 400,000 U.S. personnel in the Persian Gulf region, it is time to involve 535 other Americans. Perhaps Congress can clarify U.S. policy. Only Congress can legitimize offensive action with forces this numerous.
It was nearly eight years after the first U.S. casualties in Vietnam before U.S. forces there numbered 400,000. When allied leaders met at Casablanca in January 1943, 13 months after Pearl Harbor, neither MacArthur in the Pacific nor Eisenhower in Europe had more than 350,000 U.S. forces.
The problem today with Desert Shield is not that U.S. forces were deployed too quickly, without congressional ratification. Halting Iraq required haste. But the president simultaneously (and hence without adequate thought) stipulated the purpose of the deployment to be not mere containment but the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and restoration of Kuwait's regime, to be achieved by military force if economic sanctions do not suffice.
The 1973 War Powers Act triggers congressional consultation and ratification or termination of deployment initiated by presidents when U.S. forces are in situations ''where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.'' Is this the case now, with U.S. officers telling the troops to be prepared for an offensive soon?
The president characterizes the nearly doubling of the deployment as necessary ''to provide an adequate offensive military option'' if economic sanctions fail over an unspecified span. But a short span is implied by the decision (simultaneous with the additional deployments) that troops will not be rotated out of the desert until the basic mission is accomplished. This means the embargo is not to be given a chance to succeed.
The wrong worry today concerns ''another Vietnam,'' meaning a large, protracted conflict entered into by stealth and small increments, without congressional involvement. Actually, Congress debated and funded Vietnam at every stage.
A more apposite and ominous analogy is to the outbreak of World War I, when mobilization acquired a deadly momentum. France set in motion 3 million men on 4,278 trains, an intricate operation that, once begun, was almost impossible to modulate. When the Kaiser wanted a pause in Germany's mobilization, he was told it would be impossible to reroute 11,000 trains. Europe went to war because it had started to go toward war.
Today some people say that U.S. pronouncements and deployments that have already been made mean the United States will be dangerously diminished and Saddam Hussein dangerously enhanced if Desert Shield does not quickly (remember the no-rotation policy) achieve its objective. If this is the president's thinking, then the United States is heading for war because it has put in place, in an inhospitable desert, the capacity for war (''an adequate offensive military option'').
When are Americans, who have listened and watched but learned little in three months, going to be told -- and sold -- clear objectives and a convincing rationale?
The two undeclared wars since World War II were embittering. America entered that war's third year after Japan had attacked America. America entered World War I after direct attacks on its vital interests (freedom of the seas, the Lusitania), and for a comprehensible, if extravagant, goal (to make the world safe for democracy).
Are Americans now to fight for the vacuity of a ''New International Order?'' Or to make the Middle East safe for Kuwaiti feudalism? Even if punishing Iraqi aggression is a vital U.S. interest, what justifies starting a clock for action that precludes a full test of sanctions?
Does the president's policy encompass what are called arms-control dimensions? That is, must Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait be followed by a reduction of Iraq's conventional, chemical, biological and potential nuclear capabilities? If, say, Pakistan has both nuclear weapons and a dangerous leader, will we then be bound, by the Iraqi precedent, to disarm Pakistan?
Some supporters of untrammeled presidential discretion want it used to bomb Iraq just enough to degrade its power, but not enough to destabilize the regional balance of power. Who has the skill to apply force in such precise dosages?
All wars involve, even for the winners, unimagined contingencies that are unpleasant. Are we prepared, for example, for a victory that requires soldiers from Kansas and Florida to patrol streets of an occupied Baghdad?
A war should not be begun with unclear goals and uncertain domestic support. Congress should be convened to listen, watch, learn, clarify and legitimize.