WASHINGTON -- It has been widely observed, accurately, that the debate in Congress over the use of force in the Persian Gulf marked a resurrection of the long dormant tradition of sober, thoughtful and responsible discourse on Capitol Hill on matters of vital national interest. Such debate truly has not been heard at least since the Vietnam War.
However, it is a mark of failure that it took place only on the eve of the U.S.-dictated United Nations deadline for peaceful adherence by Iraq to the 12 U.N. resolutions, also crafted and engineered through the international body by the United States. The timing surely contributed to the outcome, especially in the Senate, where the argument of not undermining President Bush's hand in his strategy of unyielding ultimatum to Saddam ** Hussein swayed a number of Democrats otherwise favoring a continued policy of economic sanctions.
The proper time for the debate was immediately after Bush unilaterally changed the American mission and began constructing an offensive posture in the region once the November elections were over. The resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq has been compared to President Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964. But it was the switch in mission by Bush that is the closer parallel -- a president escalating the American commitment without acknowledging it was being done. Congress in procrastinating in effect surrendered its ability to force a change in that policy.
The result now is that Bush goes forward claiming a solidarity behind him on Capitol Hill that is temporary at best and paper thin. There is no question that Congress will continue to vote the necessary funds to supply American troops in the gulf, but there was no question of that support going into the debate. The reality is that Congress, and the country, remain deeply divided over the use of force, and that division will vanish only with speedy victory, and will only grow in its absence.
In Bush's letter of ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, now published, Bush told the Iraqi dictator: "You may be tempted to find solace in the diversity of opinion that is American democracy. You should resist any such temptation. Diversity ought not to be confused with division. Nor should you underestimate, as others have before you, America's will."
Such a statement is fine as an arguing point for submission to greater force. But it is Bush who is confused if he thinks that the votes in Congress, especially the narrow votes in the Senate, can be translated into blind support for his Persian Gulf policy beyond a solid backing of American fighting men in the field.
That policy is so flawed that only a swift victory in the field, or capitulation by Saddam, will stem an inevitable and increasing questioning of it. The country already is in a collective daze over the various rationales that Bush has offered for going to war: protecting an oil supply more vital to Europe and Japan than to the United States, protecting American jobs, or "rewarding aggression."
This last reason is the most ludicrous of all, in as much as the "reward" that Saddam Hussein has been seeking is clearly not something for which he invaded Kuwait -- Middle East peace conference dealing with the Palestinian issue. Rather, it is something that the United States has long been urging itself and that will have to happen sooner or later if that impasse is ever to be resolved.
Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn observed, after having himself voted against the use of force now, that "it's time for America to stand together." That sentiment reflects the undeniable support of the country for Americans under fire. But the depth of congressional and public opposition to the Bush policy cannot be swept under the rug. Sharp disagreement with it has been further fed by the events in the Soviet Union, where once again, as in the 1956 Suez crisis when the Soviets moved to crush the Hungarian revolution, American preoccupation elsewhere has flashed a green light for repressive Soviet actions.
Rather than demonstrating the virtues of a "new world order" of collective action against aggression, Bush has fallen into the same old order. He has eschewed the less lethal policy of sanctions for the massing of power and manpower on essentially a unilateral basis under American, not United Nations, control. And unless the confrontation in the Persian Gulf is resolved swiftly, the division demonstrated in Congress will soon resurface against a president who prefers to contend that it no longer exists.