President Bush's march toward war in the gulf

Anthony Lewis

November 23, 1990|By Anthony Lewis

BOSTON — PRESIDENT Bush's Thanksgiving Day message to the troops in Saudi Arabia, and to the world, could not have been clearer. He is gung ho for war on Iraq.

The president's mind has been moving in that direction since mid-October, when he invited some eminent friends to the White House and discussed the possibility of war.

The direction became explicit two days after the congressional elections, when he ordered up to 200,000 more soldiers to the gulf to provide an "offensive military option."

Since then Bush has escalated his rhetoric. He and Secretary of State Baker have been urging other governments to support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action.

If all this means what it says -- war -- then George Bush is taking his country and the world into a tragedy of appalling dimensions.

It would be a war with enormous casualties and with destabilizing effects beyond calculation.

I say that as someone who thought that Bush was wise to react quickly in August, sending U.S. forces to the gulf after Iraq gobbled up Kuwait. Without that action, Iraq would almost certainly have moved on into Saudi Arabia.

Then the president marshaled a remarkable international coalition against Iraq's aggression. The Security Council passed resolutions applying tough sanctions against Iraq, and enforcing them.

The sanctions began to work, strangling Iraq's supplies of industrial parts, raw materials and food.

In that situation, time was on the side of the United States and its partners. All we needed was patience. And patience is what President Bush by all signs does not have.

The order to send more U.S. forces to the gulf makes time run against the United States and its allies.

It is not possible to keep 400,000 U.S. soldiers in the desert for many more months. The very fact of that large a deployment pushes us toward war without waiting for sanctions to achieve their end of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Moreover, the massive troop increase has cost Bush much of the domestic support for his policy.

Sen. Sam Nunn, Congress' most important figure on military policy, has become a critic. Conservative commentators are deploring the rush to war, as are liberals and the Roman Catholic bishops.

Can Bush really plan to march on to war with that kind of division in his own people? If there is significant dissent now, think what it would be like if American bodies started coming back from the gulf in large numbers.

Listening to the president talk to the Marines, one might think that a war with Iraq would be quick and easy. Bush might have been giving a pep talk before a game.

But it would almost certainly not be quick or easy. And not beneficently simple in its results. A war with Iraq could devastate a huge area of the Middle East.

It could arouse many Arabs, even those critical of Saddam Hussein, against the United States.

War would risk turning the moral equation upside-down.

Saddam Hussein is seen by most countries now as a brutal aggressor. It is not so clear that the sympathies of people outside the industrial countries would stay that way if the United States attacked.

The puzzle is why Bush would sound so gung ho for war at a time when Saddam is visibly "flailing about under serious duress." Those words were used the other day by Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China and a leading figure in the foreign policy establishment.

Lord, writing in The Washington Post, praised Bush's policy in the gulf. But his praise seemed to be for the policy before the turn toward war.

"The president should scrupulously engage Congress," Lord said. "He should rotate the troops. Let us hunker down for the long haul."

That is a call for patience, for letting the sanctions work. To it should be added one more crucial step: undertaking serious diplomacy with Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi leader, interviewed last week by Peter Jennings of ABC News, repeatedly urged negotiation. He said he was ready to talk with Saudi Arabia and with the United States.

That was more than flailing about. It was a signal -- one that the U.S. should be exploring through a third party such as Sweden.

With patience and skill, without war, Bush can achieve his legitimate goals in the gulf.

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