WASHINGTON — SOON AFTER America stepped up to its responsibility in the Persian Gulf, Sen. Bob Dole -- ever the cynic, and a prime #F appeaser of Saddam Hussein -- spelled out the motive he saw behind our action: "O-I-L."
A hundred days later, with Americans still denied the articulation of a purpose worthy of fighting for, James Baker, ever the pragmatist, and the architect of the appeasement of WilliamSafirethe Iraqi dictator, came up with his own equally short, equally cynical answer: "jobs."
President Bush tried to defend that dismaying rationale in an interview with CNN. "Look what's happening in our own country right now," he said. "There's a slowdown, an economic slowdown," which he attributed to the oil price rise and the fear of further rises that Saddam Hussein could bring about. "And so -- it does mean jobs."
Here is the president espousing a line set earlier in the week by the man he has long trusted most in the formation of public opinion. Baker persuaded his boss that this pocketbook explanation of war aims, despite its negative reception with opinion leaders, would play in Peoria.
Baker is first and foremost a campaign manager. As he proved with his 1988 Willie Horton commercials and allegiance-pledging, is not above using appeals to fear to sway public opinion. He has had time to think through the political reason for the president's severe drop in the polls, and his conclusion led to the "jobs" strategy. Let's see why.
He undoubtedly remembered how President Reagan's popularity plunged as the recession of 1981-82 drove up the unemployment rate. Baker also knows that the worsening 1990 recession has not yet pushed up the rate of unemployment, but that such a rise must accompany the economy's fall: at least 8 percent of the work force is likely to be out of work before Bush runs for re-election.
Who is to be blamed? How can the coming anger be deflected? Reagan was able to blame Jimmy Carter because his recession took place early in his first Reagan term, but Bush cannot blame Reagan. Nor can he shift the blame onto the Democrats for triggering recession by raising taxes -- because Bush joined that tax-hike caravan at Baker's urging.
The Baker answer: Blame Saddam Hussein. Never mind the conclusion by most economists that the downturn was well under way before his August invasion; that's a lot of egghead talk.
Most people remember that prosperity was here last spring and it's gone this winter -- and the intervening big event was the doubling of oil prices after the invasion of Kuwait.
But it's a phony alibi. Of course the oil price hike adds to inflation; of course post-Kuwait uncertainty troubles the stock market; but the inevitable turn of the cycle after eight fat years was on its way. To try to use the confrontation in the gulf as an excuse for the coming decline of retail sales and drop in corporate earnings and loss of jobs is a cheap trick.
Baker is not above these tricks, but leads a media-charmed life. The savings and loan scandals took place on his watch as Treasury Secretary, but nobody grills him about his inattention. The sanctions to stop Saddam Hussein from using U.S. credit to buy weapons were defeated by Baker's personal decision, yet he was able to inveigle a front-page dope story saying how he really had wanted to get tough with Iraq but Robert Gates at the National Security Council wouldn't let him.
To use the crisis to avoid domestic political heat is to invite disunity. Bush should dispense with the sleazy Baker advice and follow his better instincts.
In the same CNN interview, he made a powerful point in going beyond the cliche of not rewarding aggression with face-saving concessions. "When you rape, pillage and plunder a neighbor, should you then ask the world 'Hey, give me a little face'?"
On the contrary, future would-be aggressors must be shown international crime has costs: not a return to the status quo ante, but reparations for killing and looting, war crimes trials for hostage-taking, and the verifiable elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. This is getting serious about keeping the next generation's peace.
The president noted that Saddam Hussein "has a nuclear capability that he's trying frantically to build ... he's trying hard to get an atomic weapon."
Now you're talking about the coming threat to the lives of millions of Americans. That is the reason for finishing this war with an allied victory -- not to save our oil supply or to save jobs, but ultimately to save lives.