Gulf war is a partisan issue

William Schneider

December 07, 1990|By William Schneider

AT THE VERY moment when the international consensus behind the Bush administration's Persian Gulf policy came together, the domestic consensus came apart.

For the second time in its history -- and the first time in 40 years -- the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the use of force against an aggressor. In supporting the resolution, the WilliamSchneiderSoviet foreign minister contended that the world was "entering a time of political maturity."

At the same time, the administration found it impossible to obtain a comparable resolution of support from Congress. According to Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., Bush wanted "the authority to prosecute foreign policy as encompassed in the U.N. resolution." He didn't get it.

Congress couldn't even agree to meet for fear of setting off a divisive debate that would undermine U.S. policy. Now that the Cold War is over, the world may be "entering a time of political maturity," but American politics isn't.

The Iraq issue has become partisan. You can see it in the congressional debate. "It looks like Bush is about to have a Republican war in the gulf," a Democratic congressional aide told the Washington Post.

You can also see it in the polls. From Aug.2 to Nov.7, the domestic consensus held fast behind what was regarded as a defensive policy in the gulf. That consensus still holds. In a Los Angeles Times poll taken in mid-November, majorities of both Democrats and Republicans continued to support the administration's initial policy of sending American troops to the Persian Gulf.

The two parties split after Nov. 8, when the administration shifted to what looked like an offensive posture. A majority of Democrats in the L.A. Times poll opposed the president's decision to send additional troops. A majority of Republicans supported it. Republicans said they were ready to go to war. Democrats said they were not.

It's the old division: Democrats are the party of peace, Republicans are the party of strength. The Republicans seemed likely to lose the strength issue. Why do we need a military buildup if the United States no longer faces a communist threat? In fact, some conservatives oppose Bush's gulf policy precisely for that reason. It is not a good war because there is no communist threat.

The same logic said the Democrats would lose the peace issue. With the end of the Cold War, democracy flourished and peace was breaking out all over. Republican presidents Reagan and Bush became the architects of a new world order.

Initially, many liberals saw Bush's gulf policy as the sort of nonideological, internationalist commitment they could endorse without compunctions. It is not a bad war because this time, we are on the right side. Moreover, Bush scrupulously went about getting communist support, Third World support and United Nations support for his policy.

As it turns out, however, nothing has changed. Democrats learned a major lesson in Vietnam: Americans are not interventionist. Sensing the public's concern that Bush's policy had turned interventionist, Democrats reclaimed the peace issue. They packaged it under a new name -- patience -- and argued for giving sanctions a chance to work.

The administration is sensitive to another lesson of Vietnam: Americans don't like limited wars. At his Nov. 30 press conference, Bush said: "If there must be war, we will not permit our troops to have their hands tied behind their backs. If one American soldier has to go into battle, that soldier will have enough force behind him to win and then get out as soon as possible . . . I will never, ever agree to a halfway effort."

According to the Washington Post, the president has rejected gradualism in favor of "invincible force," a doctrine that seeks overwhelming firepower to guarantee victory. It is a new way of expressing the old Republican commitment to strength. America stages an overwhelming show of strength to persuade the enemy to capitulate. If that doesn't work, America uses its strength to destroy him. "This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war," Bush promised.

Now, as in the past, the public supports both peace and strength -- whichever will resolve the problem faster and with less human cost. There is no evidence the public has abandoned its historical wariness of international involvement.

The Iraq crisis demonstrates that with the end of the Cold War, the political divisions over foreign policy remain the same. The Democrats are the peace party. The Republicans are the strength party. And the public favors whichever policy will keep us out of trouble. Why hasn't anything changed? Because during the Cold War and the Vietnam era, Americans were never divided over communism. They were divided over American foreign policy. Now, communism is no longer an issue. But American foreign policy still is.

William Schneider is a syndicated columnist.

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