WASHINGTON. — Washington.
ON THE SECOND day of what must be a momentous month for the nation, Sen. Sam Nunn was, as is his wont, trying to think beyond the next few months.
Reports, he said, that Amstel beer is still abundant in Baghdad are beside the point. The United States is feeling trepidation as it enters a recession that will be considered quite serious if it causes a 3 percent contraction of the gross national product. But 50 percent of Iraq's GNP comes from oil.
Ancillary effects of the embargo should run its impact up to 60 percent, then toward 70 percent. Iraq is rapidly running down its foreign-currency reserves; it reportedly is laying off embassy staff around the world.
Senator Nunn does not claim certain knowledge that sanctions will be sufficient to reverse Saddam Hussein's aggression. He does insist that no one else knows the sanctions will fail.
And he notes that for more than two months -- for about half the duration of this crisis, now beginning its sixth month -- the Bush administration has been denigrating the strategy of relying on sanctions, a strategy it put in place.
Precisely because Mr. Nunn has had more confidence in the administration's original strategy than the administration turned out to have, he has been the target of criticism that disparages his motives. Because he is skeptical about the use of force as it seems to be contemplated (to be precise, he is skeptical particularly about the early use of ground forces in a desert war), he has been accused of tailoring his convictions to suit his presidential ambitions.
Because this is a year before a presidential year, many things said and many things left unsaid by potential presidential candidates like Mr. Nunn are viewed through the distorting lens of journalism.
Senator Nunn is not coy about the presidency. Clearly he is interested; clearly he has not made up his mind; clearly he thinks that a lesson of 1988, and the danger of war today, make it both unnecessary and imprudent to start presidential politicking now.
Four years ago this month, the center of attention was another inscrutable place, a four-letter ''I'' word: Iowa. Today, 56 weeks before Iowa's nominating caucuses, no presidential candidate is out there.
This is in part because winning there did not mean much. (Quickly, now: Name the top two candidates in each party in Iowa in 1988. Right: Bob Dole and Pat Robertson; and Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon.) More important is the fact that Washington is palpably entering a period in which the gravity of the crisis brings out the gravitas in those who have that quality.
Mr. Nunn does. And he notes that in future crises presidents had better be more careful than recent ones have been about distinguishing between those of the nation's interests that are vital and those that are merely important.
In 1982, U.S. forces were sent into Lebanon because Lebanon was defined as a vital U.S. interest. Eight years later, U.S. policy was passivity, even silence, when Syria intensified its conquest of Lebanon. What has changed? Syria now is a minor partner in a coalition that has been assembled because the restoration of Kuwait has been defined as a vital interest.
Mr. Nunn believes that because of the investment of U.S. prestige in the huge Desert Shield deployment, the restoration of Kuwait has become something between ''important'' and ''vital.'' also believes that war against Iraq is ''justified'' -- which is not synonymous for ''necessary'' or ''prudent'' -- in this sense: There are no reasonable moral qualms about war doing an injustice to Iraq's legitimate interests.
A large American majority probably thinks as Senator Nunn does about the matters of national interest and justification in this crisis. Thus it seems likely that, come what may, the nation will be spared the most divisive kinds of debates.
But a third kind of debate, certainly unnecessary and potentially bitter, can be inflicted on the nation by a combination of administration arrogance and congressional timidity. It is the sort of debate -- one about legalities -- to which Americans are peculiarly prone. It is a debate about the respective rights and duties of Congress and the president in the use of force.
Mr. Nunn argues that during the flurry of diplomatic activity now begun, a protracted congressional debate would be apt to contribute only confusion. However, Congress could now pass a resolution that does three things: endorses the president's goals; affirms that economic sanctions have a reasonable chance to achieve those goals; affirms that if the president decides otherwise and seeks congressional authorization for the use of force, such authorization will be debated and voted on in three days.
Administration spokesmen cite polls showing that 55 percent of Americans favor force if necessary to expel Iraq from Kuwait. This is too large an undertaking to rest on such a slender majority -- a majority that has not felt the first withering blast of war.