Bush cannot build a case for war based on reports of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait


January 06, 1991|By Jack W.Germondand Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington

In his televised interview with David Frost the other night, President Bush made much of how he had been horrified by reports of the brutality of the Iraqi invaders of Kuwait. His obvious intention was to bolster the case for a military attack on a regime dedicated to savagery.

But what the president did instead was to underscore once again the schizophrenic nature of the rationale for the United States' involvement in the Persian Gulf. The White House understandably wants to present the case for action as a moral necessity. But anyone who can see the situation clearly understands that oil has always been the critical factor.

Mr. Bush doesn't seem to understand that he is not in a strong position to make a case that atrocities committed by the legions of Saddam Hussein are a valid basis for a moral justification for war. At the most obvious level, it is a rationale that fails the most basic tests of consistency.

When, for example, Mr. Hussein was using poison gas against Kurds during the war with Iran, the administration of which Mr. Bush was a prominent part was "tilting" toward the same people who committed these atrocities.

Today this is an administration that has made common cause with Syria, whose record for atrocities is every bit as bloody as that of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the evidence is strong that Syria has been more responsible for acts of terrorism -- including some directly aimed at the United States -- than any other power.

Mr. Bush may try, as he did in the interview, to minimize these "differences" while emphasizing the common U.S.-Syrian attitude pTC toward Mr. Hussein. But that is an argument that fails the most elementary tests of logic if morality is to be a cornerstone of U.S. policy.

The administration's relationship with China is another glaring example. The regime in Beijing was patently guilty of killing its own young people in Tiananmen Square just 18 months ago, an atrocity that shocked the world as much as any event since the genocide in Cambodia. But President Bush found a way to rationalize that behavior within a month when he dispatched his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to keep the lines of communication open with the Chinese leaders.

The hard fact is that the United States cannot establish itself as the moral arbiter of international behavior. That was never more apparent than in the fact that the president cited as his source of information on atrocities in Kuwait a report from Amnesty International, a group usually dismissed by conservatives as a bunch of bleeding hearts. Amnesty International has been issuing such reports by the dozens for years and years -- every reporter in Washington is familiar with them -- without evoking any similar response from the U.S. government.

Thus, logic would suggest that if the findings in Kuwait are now a valid basis for U.S. military action, so should be the same kinds of findings of inhuman behavior in Asia and South America and Africa and anywhere else. But no one would argue that such a policy would be practical. One of the hard realities of life is that there will always be people who will commit atrocities.

From the outset, President Bush has had a difficult time in making a case for his policy in the Persian Gulf that would build the kind of popular consensus he needs to conduct a war and to justify the possibility of significant American casualties.

He cannot build such a consensus simply by explaining that Mr. Hussein cannot be allowed to control the world's oil supply. That argument may be a valid one, but it is not one for which Americans will sacrifice the lives of their sons and daughters.

So the president has emphasized at various times the "naked aggression" of a big power against a small neighbor, the potential threat from Saddam Hussein if he is allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability and -- as in the David Frost interview -- the record of bestial behavior of the Iraqis.

All of these are points that deserve to be made. But when you get to the bone, the fact remains that the outrage of the world is not a reaction to the fate of the Kuwaitis.

Even if there had been no atrocities, the controlling reality is that no one wants Saddam Hussein to control the world's oil supply.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.

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