U.N. Triumph U.S. Trauma

November 30, 1990

Question: Is the United Nations Security Council more resolute than the United States Congress in its determination to oust Iraq from Kuwait?

Answer: Yes, for now, and for one elemental reason. If there is to be war after the new Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal, America -- not the council's 14 other nations -- will be doing most of the fighting and taking most of the casualties.

Undoubtedly, Security Council adoption of its new resolution authorizing the use of "all necessary means" to end Saddam Hussein's aggression is a major diplomatic triumph for President Bush. By enlisting the support of the Soviet Union, dealing with the likes of Syria, discouraging a Chinese veto and putting together the first U.N. force resolution since the Korean War, Mr. Bush has been able to paste together a coalition that would have been inconceivable scant months ago.

Yet there was always a contradiction in the president's strategy. The closer he came to the accomplishment of his objectives in the Security Council, and the more credible he made the U.S. military threat, the greater became the concerns of his compatriots on the home front. Support for the military option dwindled in popular opinion polls. Democrats on Capitol Hill found the courage to openly question administration policy. And in the run-up to the U.N. vote, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former secretary of Defense and a former secretary of the Navy marched before the Senate Armed Services Committee and delivered one blunt message: Patience.

To be sure, there were built-in contradictions in this counsel as well. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger warned that U.S. readiness to use force would erode with time, leaving Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear war-making capability intact.

So, in the end, the Security Council vote turned into a preliminary exercise anticipating gut decisions that will have to be made in Washington.

When President Bush meets with legislative leaders today, he should beware of siren calls for a special session of the lame-duck 101st Congress. This is mainly a project of Republican lawmakers intent on putting Democrats on the spot. While the president has no reason to believe Democrats are loath to make the Gulf a partisan issue, he would be wise to stick to quiet consultation.

The 102nd Congress is not scheduled to hold formal sessions until Jan. 21 -- six days after the Security Council deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. By that time, the U.S. force in the Gulf will be fully mobilized, the Soviet Union will have had an opportunity to work its connections in the Iraqi military, the embargo will be biting deeper and Saddam Hussein can think again. Then let Congress show its true mettle.

There is ambiguity in such an approach. But ambiguity is one of America's weapons of choice.

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