HAD PRESIDENT Bush gone on TV last August with the sober case for war his secretaries of state and defense now have laid before Congress, he'd probably have won overwhelming public and congressional support. Instead, he indicated we could do the job on the cheap, relying on sanctions to bring Saddam Hussein to heel. He offered a series of varied and brief sound-bite reasons for sending troops to Saudi Arabia but repeatedly indicated they were there only to deter and defend. Not until two days after the election did the administration hint of offensive action, with Bush still insisting he preferred "peaceful means." Only in the last few days has he admitted to doubts that sanctions will work.
Surely, some of his experts have been telling him this from the git-go. It requires no rocket scientist to mull through sanctions' track record and conclude they're a long shot.
From his intelligence briefings, Bush had to know the embargo could not squeeze Saddam out of Kuwait in less than a year and that, unless he was prepared to wait, he'd have to take us to war. He seems to have thought he could get away with a bluff, but it must have occurred to him that his hand would be called.
Apparently, he decided he'd rather deceive us about all this than call for the sacrifices war entails. Probably he thought events would bring us along, much as he used the U.N. resolution as a tool for lobbying Congress. He obviously mistrusts the maturity and judgment of the people who elected him.
It was a ghastly mistake. When the nation woke up after the election to discover he was launching an offensive force too big to permit troop-rotation -- a loud "wha-a-a-t!" went up.
Congress quite properly hustled into the act with public hearings at which some of the nation's best military and foreign-policy minds passionately argued that sanctions be given at least a year before committing troops to battle.
Personally, I think Bush's security advisers have it right, that sanctions will only delay the inevitable, possibly making the military job even costlier when it comes. But in ducking his duty to lay the true situation before the country from Day One, he put himself in this box. He has no choice now except to wait a year or more.
To take a nation as divided as we are on this question into battle -- or to contrive a war based on fabricated or insubstantial provocations -- would rip its social fabric, even if the fighting was brief and successful, as I think it would be.
Those who want to wait make several sound arguments. The only valid reason to move sooner is to save lives. All the guff about economic pain doesn't matter. I think a war may be bloodier a year or so down the road, but that debate's been lost. Most Americans now prefer to rely on the sanctions, even though a majority tell pollsters they don't believe they'll work.
So that's how it ought to be, Mr. President. Maybe you'll be able to negotiate out of this mess without giving away the store. Then you'll be a hero. But, if not, you'll just have to wait, whatever the risks. Together we stand, remember? Don't tear us apart. And next time treat us like grown-ups, please.