Nuclear alarm, political clock on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 10, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush the other day listed his justifications for the threatened use of American force in the Persian Gulf, he again said he was "deeply concerned about Saddam's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Imagine his ability to blackmail his neighbors," Bush said, "should he possess a nuclear device." That expressed concern in turn has set off a debate over Iraq's potential to produce a nuclear weapon, and how soon.

Those who say the threat is real hint of secret intelligence suggesting such a development might be a reality in six months. Those who disagree say it will take at least five years or more for Iraqi scientists to deliver. But whatever the reality, there is strong reason to suspect that Bush in injecting the issue was primarily playing to public opinion in his pursuit of homefront support. Just before Bush started including the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear lTC capability as a justification, two polls found this threat being cited more often than any other by Americans as a reason to go to war.

Although the administration has now started to soft-pedal this line, its use at all raises an interesting question: What happens if Saddam Hussein pulls out of Kuwait and meets all the other requirements of the U.N. resolutions passed against him? If the nuclear-capability issue is worth using force today, as Bush seemed to be arguing, why will it be less a justification if Iraqi troops leave Kuwait?

The likelihood is that the issue will be shunted back to the level of concern and response that it would have if there were no

Persian Gulf crisis today. That is, it will be dealt with through diplomatic and possibly economic pressures, not a ground invasion of 400,000 U.S. troops.

Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney has said as much on network television. Even if Saddam Hussein withdraws from Kuwait, he said, he must know "that we are very concerned about that capability and that we are prepared to try to find diplomatic ways to deal with it if possible, but it has to be dealt with."

In other words, the administration has been elevating the threat of Iraq's nuclear potential into a scare tactic to generate support for his Persian Gulf strategy. And once the crisis is over, if it is over without a shooting war, the threat will go back to the guys in striped pants to deal with.

In all this, Bush is employing a time-honored ploy in American politics -- distorting an issue for political advantage in a particular political situation. Recent history is replete with such gambits, by Democrats and Republicans alike, usually in the context of a presidential campaign, but not always.

In the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy warned repeatedly of a "missile gap" between U.S. and Soviet capabilities, and Richard Nixon blew out of all proportion a debate over whether the United States should defend Quemoy and Matsu, two obscure Chinese offshore islands held by the Chinese Nationalists on Formosa (now Taiwan), in the event of an attack by the Communist Chinese.

After the election, Kennedy "discovered" that there was no missile gap at all, and Quemoy and Matsu blissfully sank into the obscurity they had enjoyed before the election.

In 1968, Nixon boasted of having a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, but after the election it seemed to disappear.

In the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter said he was going to reduce the federal bureaucracy from 1,900 agencies to only 200, but said no more about this incredible shrinking job afterward.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan promised to balance the federal budget and slash the size of government, and afterward both mushroomed.

More recently, George Bush in 1988 made barring the recitation of the pledge of allegiance to the American flag and the granting of prison furloughs to convicted killers the centerpiece of his campaign against the hapless Michael Dukakis. After the votes were in, nothing more was heard of either non-issue.

The current furor over Iraq's nuclear potential smacks of the same transitory pitch for public support. If the danger is great enough to warrant military action today, that danger won't disappear with the sight of Iraqi soldiers trudging home from Kuwait. But the chances are the American people will be hearing a lot less about that threat from President Bush if Saddam Hussein agrees to abide by the U.N. resolutions.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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