Having botched the budget, will the Washington Establishment now kill the credibility of a U.S. military threat against Iraq? The recent performance of the White House and, more especially, certain elements in Congress has been dismaying. Although the rhetoric rings with constitutional argument and with compassion for our forces in the sands of Araby, some of the maneuvering has been crassly political or backside protective.
Of all the balloons floated, the one most deserving of the quick puncture it got was the idea of calling an emergency session of Congress. To pass what? A declaration of war? An authorization to use force? A limitation on military options? A compromise signifying nothing?
The chief advocate of a special session was Senate Republican leader Robert Dole, who may have been primarily interested in putting the Democrats on the spot. Fortunately, the White House burst Mr. Dole's balloon with the help of Democratic leaders (Sen. George Mitchell and Speaker Tom Foley) who were not about to subject their divided party to up-or-down votes.
Yet nothing turns off microphones. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar was all for bolstering "the clarity and certainty of our American voice" through a de facto declaration of war that some Democrats rightly saw as a "blank check" for the executive. Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that Mr. Bush "will wreck our military, he will wreck his administration and he'll spoil a chance to get a collective security system working. It breaks your heart."
As for Mr. Bush, his heart remained intact. Calling congressional big-wigs in for some soothing consultation, he quoted Iraqi news reports on Lugar-Moynihan-style statements that can only fortify Saddam Hussein's conviction that Americans are too divided and impatient and loath to take casualties to turn back his seizure of Kuwait.
That the president once again found himself beleaguered was a direct result of (1) the shellacking in the budget battle that he brought upon himself and (2) his persistent inability to articulate a consistent rationale for his intervention in the Gulf. Both setbacks undercut his popular approval ratings and his reputation on Capitol Hill as a leader to be feared and/or followed.
There is a possible way out. If foreign nations are not turned off by the cacophony in Washington, if they can be convinced to support a U.S. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to back down Iraq, then U.S. credibility may yet be sustained. Actually, there is common ground between the naysayers at home and the doubters abroad: Both want to wait out the Baghdad regime until sanctions cut into its war-making potential. This was original Bush policy; it can be enduring Bush policy, but only if all military options remain open.