DESPITE all the bellicosity, hope -- even expectation -- is increasing that the Persian Gulf crisis will be resolved without military conflict. Iraq, facing massive force, appears to be looking for a way out. And American public opinion, which had supported President Bush strongly in his initial response to Iraqi aggression, has turned against the "offensive strategy" announced two days after the November election.
Subdued questions about the size of the forces deployed and the likely cost of war have burst into the open. The president and secretary of state succeeded in developing an international consensus, as evidenced by United Nations resolutions, but the support was more talk than action. U.S. allies have yet to commit meaningful numbers of troops or funds to support the effort. The talk may be that this is a conflict between Iraq and the world, but the reality is that it is basically an American affair.
The administration has failed in its effort to manufacture domestic consent for its policies. This failure results not from an inadequacy of presidential "leadership," but from the advocacy of flawed policies. People haven't accepted the changing rationales for war: Saddam Hussein is the new Hitler; any negotiations will take us down the road to Munich; oil; jobs; Iraq's nuclear potential; the establishment of a "new world order based on the rule of law."
The 1930s analogies, said Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser, have "trivialized Hitler" while exaggerating Saddam Hussein's power. The nuclear threat is not immediate, but five to 10 years down the road if all measures to enforce the non-proliferation treaty fail. The oil rationale struck a false note when Japan and Germany, far more dependent on Mideast supplies than we, gave no evidence that they saw their vital interests at stake. And Secretary James Baker's "one word" explanation of "jobs" was measured against the cost of lives in a war, and found wanting.
Moreover, the nature of the Kuwait and Saudi regimes produced profound unease. Troubling, too, are America's new allies, Syria foremost among them, now making their contributions to a "new world order based on the rule of law." The U.S. has relearned an old maxim: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Against this background Congress began a cost-benefit analysis led not by isolated peaceniks, but by Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Heeding warnings of two former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, seven former secretaries of defense and, indirectly, the director of the CIA, members of Congress began counseling patience.
The bargaining is already underway. Iraq has released the hostages. The U.S. has backed off its declarations that Saddam must be eliminated. Baker has said that once Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, nothing is precluded in direct negotiations between Kuwait and Iraq. All this even before the to-be-scheduled visits of the Iraqi foreign minister to Washington and the secretary of state to Baghdad.
The United States, the 20th century's last world superpower, is fully capable of reducing Baghdad to rubble. Instead, it is forced to confront the limits of its power. What would be the fruits of military victory in Iraq? Certainly not peace or regional stability. Certainly not tranquility at home.
Iraq is one more diversion, an extremely dangerous diversion, that again delays the critical choices this nation must make in redefining its national interests. We must stop squandering our resources and direct them at restoring the health of our people and our economy. A negotiated settlement in the Mideast, tough as that will be, is the only path toward this goal.
Gunther Wertheimer is a retired Baltimore businessman.