WASHINGTON -- A sharp and steady decline in support for President Bush's policy seems to be building a wall around his freedom to act in the Persian Gulf.
A spate of new opinion polls, remarkable for their consistency, show that general approval of the president's policy has declined from more than 75 percent in September to 55 percent or less today. Moreover, other findings make it apparent that Americans favor a more patient policy than has been implied by the huge military buildup Bush has ordered. The surveys found 70 percent favor giving the economic sanctions more time to work and about the same level of backing for a full congressional debate of Persian Gulf policy before any further steps are taken.
One of the new polls found most voters believe Bush acted too hastily in ordering the new forces to the gulf. And two others found strong majorities for the proposition that Bush should not be allowed to attack Iraq without congressional approval.
A New York Times-CBS News study found men supporting Bush's policy in the Middle East 61 to 35 percent while women opposed it 48-41 -- the overall figure being 50-41 approval.
The possibility that the president's freedom may be circumscribed is based on the thesis that the White House accepts the central political lesson of the Vietnam War experience -- that a president cannot successfully implement policies that lack a national consensus behind them. It is a view that leading administration officials have appeared to accept all along. But what has been less clear is the standards Bush and his advisers are using to define such a consensus.
It is true, of course, that the numbers still show majority support for Bush's policy. But the president and his advisers would be kidding themselves if they imagined they have a blank check for military action that would involve any significant number of American casualties.
Although no one would argue that any president should guide his stewardship with nothing but polling numbers, the results may be especially important to a White House that has been so sensitive to polls all along -- and that reveled so openly in the
gaudy approval ratings Bush enjoyed through the first 20 months of his presidency. But the figures are only one element of the pressure building up around Bush. Although most elective officials have continued to be circumspect about appearing to criticize the president, the movement against initiating military action against Iraq has been spreading across the country with remarkable speed.
At this point, there is nothing approaching the coalition that finally developed against the war in Vietnam 20 years ago. But there is enough embryonic opposition from enough different quarters to suggest it is only a matter of weeks before a highly visible and highly vocal anti-war movement crystallizes. When that happens, a full-scale political debate is inevitable.
Potential critics in Congress now are couching their reservations in terms of whether Bush should follow the process of genuine consultation before undertaking any military action. The debate centers on the applicability of the War Powers Act and the constitutional prerogative of Congress to declare war. But it is only the shortest step from this point to a direct challenge of the policy itself.
The central mystery in all this is why Bush has not tried to build a consensus that might have prevented the erosion of his support the polls now define. Another finding of the most recent surveys is that Americans seem confused about the president's goals in the Middle East -- and about which goals are legitimate enough to justify war. Although Bush has tried to define the U.S. role in terms of stopping "naked aggression" against Kuwait and the threat to Saudi Arabia, it is clear that Americans understand that the real stake here is the world's oil supply. If Saudi Arabia's principal export were soybeans, there would be no Operation Desert Shield.
Some skeptics suggest that Bush has been reluctant for so long to face the nation with a televised explanation of his policy because his appeal for support for the original budget compromise apparently backfired. But this time there are American lives involved, not just taxes.
The president's ability as a national leader is being tested in the ,, most direct way. And the declining poll numbers make it clear his time to demonstrate that ability is running out.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.