Democracy in the way?

Anthony Lewis

November 27, 1990|By Anthony Lewis

Boston AS PRESIDENT Bush intensifies the threat of war on Iraq, we are hearing complaints that criticism of that policy spoils its chance of success. Saddam Hussein would take the threat more seriously, that is, if Americans would silently support it.

The president himself is said to have complained about Senate critics of his turn toward war. The Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees will open hearings on policy in the Persian Gulf this week, and the administration is unenthusiastic about that.

The case against open debate of the war policy has been made with candor by a defense specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Barry R. Posen. Writing in the Boston Globe, Posen said:

"Since the president cannot want war, his purpose must be to frighten Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait. This is coercive diplomacy, and its success depends on the ability of the United States to persuade Saddam that the coalition has the capability and the will to recapture Kuwait.

"Unfortunately, the multiple voices of American democracy make this very difficult. . . . Debate can only reduce the odds of success."

In other words, democracy is inconvenient. It is a familiar lament, heard at many points in American history. Is it true?

Bush's war-like rhetoric is no doubt intended to frighten Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait without war. The democratic leaders who visited the gulf over Thanksgiving, the Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, and Speaker Thomas Foley, came back saying that the war talk was still just that: talk, not a decision to attack.

But it is not only talk. Threats are empty unless there is an intention to carry them out if talk fails.

When Bush early this month ordered up to 200,000 more Americans to the gulf, he moved into a scenario that must involve a real possibility of war. The huge U.S. force cannot stay ++ in the gulf indefinitely. If "coercive diplomacy" does not move Saddam Hussein within a few months, there will be mounting pressure to use that force.

The president had to know that he was setting out on the path to war when he decided to raise the troop commitment to such a high level.

What was wrong with the old policy of grinding Iraq down by economic sanctions? Was there doubt that Americans, or our allies, would have the patience for a long siege?

How would a war be fought? How many American casualties could be expected? What would be the consequences of a war? How stable would pro-Western Arab governments prove to be? Might Israel be threatened?

Those and many other questions would have to be considered before any American president set his country on the road to war in an area as tricky as the Middle East. But we do not know what advice Bush got, or how he finally answered the questions. He has told us nothing about the reasons that made him shift to a policy of threatening war.

We are asked to take the president's policy on faith. We must believe, for example, that a war with Iraq would be relatively easy -- that U.S. casualties would be low.

But a growing number of Americans do not believe. They are not willing to go to war in the Persian Gulf on the president's unexplained say-so. Women especially have doubts: a fascinating point that is not adequately reflected in establishment comment and TV talk shows.

Is it a weakness of the system if Americans refuse to follow a president blindly into war? I do not think so. Experience supports what Sen. Bob Kerrey, who won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, said on Sept. 19:

"Policy makers in the United States dare not delude themselves into thinking that we do not need to debate what we are doing (in the gulf) and to state our disagreements where they exist. A failure to do this -- a simple and blind acceptance of everything the president as commander in chief does -- will lead to bad policy and the potential loss of clear public support for what we are doing."

Presidents have to lead. But they must suffer public debate because it tests the wisdom of their policy. That is our constitutional system, and it has outlasted most of the others on earth.

"Democracy is the worst form of government," Churchill said, "except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

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