WASHINGTON — Washington-- Stephen Green, a playwright and insurance salesman from Baltimore, raised the question last week of why President Bush had chosen Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to go to war in the Persian Gulf.
He was referring to the compromise date of Jan. 15 that the United Nations Security Council inserted in a resolution adopted Thursday that authorizes the use of military force if Iraq has not withdrawn from Kuwait by that time.
"Why couldn't they have chosen the 14th or the 16th?" he said, suggesting that Mr. Bush might have wanted to punish the congressional Black Caucus for filing a lawsuit against him in an attempt to block a military strike against Iraq.
While Mr. Green is probably correct that no one from the Bush administration objected to the date on the grounds that it commemorates a national hero who dedicated his life to non-violent change, his reaction illustrates in part why the president is having so much trouble making his case for U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf.
People tend to filter information through their own particular frame of reference. They hear what they want to hear. Most don't want to hear a good reason to go to war.
As war looms closer and the stakes get higher, the case gets even tougher to make. It took a direct attack by Japan to prod Congress into authorizing U.S. involvement in World War II, which has been described as the last occasion when the nation reached a consensus on war. The threat to the United States posed by Iraq is much less clear.
On Friday, Mr. Bush seemed to complicate matters still further by announcing he was opening direct talks with Bagdad at the same time he was preparing for them to fail.
Each time the president has adjusted his message to fit new circumstances or a different audience during the four months since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he has inspired more criticism and confusion.
By last week, Mr. Bush's rallying cry for leading the nation into battle against Iraq was being unkindly compared to the "theme-of-the-day" sound bites of his presidential campaign.
"In one moment, the troops were sent to defend Saudi Arabia," recited Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas. "In another, it was to assure the return of Kuwait to its monarchs. Later, it became a holy mission to protect oil supplies. At other times, it was the hostages.
"And now the administration tells us that it is an effort to destroy the possibility that Iraq, at some time in the future, might have nuclear capability," he continued. "Sandwiched in between these shifting goals is Secretary of State James Baker's bland announcement that the whole effort was simply about 'jobs.' "
Omitted from the congressman's list were administration calls for speedy action because:
* Kuwait is being so swiftly dismantled there may soon be nothing left.
* The Iraqis may soon be able, Pentagon officials hinted, to put their poison gas bombs on missiles.
* U.S. casualties may be higher if Saddam Hussein is given more time to build up his defenses.
* "The fledging democracies in Eastern Europe are being severely damaged by the economic effects of Saddan' actions," Mr. Bush said Friday in his latest contributioin to the list.
"I kind of thought his explanation was adequate to begin with," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "But it worries me to see them grasping at straws like this. It seems as though they haven't convinced themselves why we should go in."
The White House insists President Bush's original rationale for action has never changed. It is reflected in the four principles adopted by the United Nations Security Council, and he repeats some version of it in every speech.
"We are here to guarantee that freedom is protected and tha Iraq's aggression will not be rewarded," Mr. Bush told U.S. troops in the Saudi desert on Thanksgiving Day. "We must send a signal to any would-be Saddam Hussein that the world will not tolerate tyrants who violate every standard of civilized behavior -- invading, bullying and swallowing whole a peaceful neighbor."
The reason why Mr. Bush says Americans, in particular, should take on this fight is that the United States depends so heavily on the oil supplies that could potentially fall under Iraq's control.
"Clearly, our national security's at stake here in the gulf, not just from the threat of force, but from the potential economic blackmail of a gulf dominated by a power-hungry Iraq," the president told the troops.
During the four months since Iraqi forces invaded and conquered Kuwait, Mr. Bush has expanded and elaborated on these themes many times.
Mr. Hussein's refusal to release the thousands of American and foreign citizens trapped in Iraq and Kuwait inspired new presidential outrage. Tales of the brutal ways in which Iraqi soldiers are torturing old men, women and babies in Kuwait enhanced the parallels between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler.