Too soon to dial 911

November 15, 1990|By James Reston

WASHINGTON — Washington

PRESIDENT BUSH keeps saying he is "running out of patience" with Saddam Hussein, who is, he insists, "worse than Hitler." In the process, he is helping create a feeling in the country that war is inevitable. It's easy to understand his frustration, but history hasn't been very kind to impatient warriors.

President Truman ran out of patience during the Korean War, invaded the North and ran into the Chinese. President Kennedy ran out of patience with Fidel Castro, and ran into the Bay of Pigs. Presidents Johnson and Nixon ran out of patience in Vietnam, and were run out of that country.

And, of course, Saddam got into his present pickle precisely because he didn't have enough patience to negotiate his grievances with Kuwait and took that country by force.

It's interesting that on Veterans Day, when we were supposed to remember the millions killed in this bloody century, little was said about the unpredictability of war or about those two impatient scoundrels, Hitler and Stalin, who fought their way to oblivion. Bush's comparison of Saddam to Hitler, a madman with superior military forces in the center of industrial Europe, is ridiculous, and the growing assumption of inevitable war is at best premature and at worst dangerous.

The blockade of Iraq is just beginning to pinch, and the more it hurts the greater the danger to Saddam from his own internal political opponents, who are numerous. Dictators have a genius for provoking fierce hostility within their own governments, and if Bush doesn't know who might get rid of Saddam, the Soviets, who have hundreds of "advisers" in Iraq, certainly do.

So it's a little early for the "worst scenario" gang to dial 911 for an emergency operation. Iraq is no Panama, and Hussein is no Noreiga.

Nor must Bush choose between war and appeasement. Iraq is not at the point of getting nuclear weapons. Another war won't make Israel secure: Tel Aviv would probably be the first target of Iraq's missiles.

Bush might consider the observations of President Eisenhower, who knew something about war, negotiated the truce in Korea and avoided the disaster of Vietnam.

"Every war is going to astonish you," Eisenhower said at a news conference in 1955. "So that for a man to predict what he is going to use and how he is going to use it would, I think, exhibit his ignorance of war; that is what I believe. So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may some day face a president."

When the French government implored Eisenhower to send his bombers to relieve its trapped garrison at Dienbienphu in Vietnam, Eisenhower consulted Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Arthur Radford, all of whom urged him to intervene.

Eisenhower said he would consider it if Congress approved, the French agreed to stay in the war and grant independence to Vietnam when it was over and the British would join in the battle. He knew full well, of course, that none of these preconditions would be met.

A gulf war is not "inevitable." The Saudis have insisted on approving any U.S. offensive military action against Iraq and Kuwait from their territory, and I don't believe they would approve the incineration of another Arab country.

Also, the Bush administration wants the U.N. Security Council to give advance approval of the use of U.S. force, and this would be subject to a veto by the Soviet Union, China, France and Britain. Maybe they would all approve, provided other means failed over a much longer period of time, and also provided they didn't have to join in the battle. But the American people might not be interested in such an arrangement.

This is a dilemma for Bush: If the allies won't read his lips, he may have to eat his words. On the one hand, he can't very well boast about the "great coalition" he organized against Saddam and then insist that it does as he pleases; on the other hand, going it alone is not likely to be a popular option.

This puts him in an awkward position, since his own ambassador in Iraq, following instructions from Washington, told Saddam personally that the U.S. did not intervene in squabbles between Arab states.

It is awkward too for the American people, who don't like to differ with a president during a crisis. But saying "My president, right or wrong," in such circumstances, is a little like saying, "my driver, drunk or sober," and not many passengers like to go that far.

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