WASHINGTON -- George Bush, a politician often accused of being cautious to a fault, has now taken the ultimate political gamble by risking his presidency on the outcome of a war against Iraq.
The heady reports of the success of the initial strikes against Saddam Hussein seemed to promise that the gamble would pay a high return. But even in the early euphoria the hard truth remained that the president needs not just an initial success but an early and complete triumph to emerge as a winner.
Bush had been signaling with increasing urgency his willingness to accept the risks involved in war. But he is the same president who only 18 months ago was so cautious he found it difficult to accept the fact that the Cold War had been won. He is the same politician who for years has carefully tailored his positions on issues to avoid giving offense.
Thus, among longtime Bush-watchers there had remained at least a small doubt that he could bring himself to such boldness. By doing so, he has shown a willingness to play for the highest stakes. "The battle has been joined," Bush told the nation on television. "We will not fail."
The political calculus on war against Iraq has been clear for weeks. Although the opinion polls showed public support for military action to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, they also provided a pattern of reservations among Americans -- in particular, the fear that the cost in American casualties would be too high to justify the results. Among political professionals in both parties, a consensus developed that Bush could be politically crippled by a protracted and costly war.
The reminders of the political stakes were clear. Even as United States planes rained bombs on Baghdad, demonstrators gathered in the streets of major cities to protest, shouting the battle cry of this generation of anti-war activism, "No blood for oil."
But the early returns on Bush's initiative were glowing. Televised reports told the nation that hundreds of planes had been involved without a single loss, that 18,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, that Iraqi missiles aimed at Israel had been destroyed on the ground, that no Iraqi planes had even taken to the air. The only suggestion of retaliation was a report from CBS News that Iraqi artillery in Kuwait had scored a hit on a Saudi oil refinery near the border.
The question remained, nonetheless, as to whether the war could achieve its purpose without a loss of American lives that would dissolve the early euphoria. Saddam was as rhetorically defiant as ever, declaring that "the mother of all battles has started." And there were no immediate indications that the lTC 500,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and along the border would not have to be rooted out in the kind of operation that would lead to politically unacceptable casualty levels.
If the early optimism proves justified, the president will have won an enormous political prize. The politician derided three years ago as a wimp would be hailed as a strongman. He would be established as an overwhelming favorite to win a second term.
But there are risks for Bush that go beyond the casualty numbers. One is the possibility that even a success will be followed by turmoil in the Middle East that will rob the military triumph of its luster. Another is that such dislocations could lead to even further economic problems that would deepen the recession in the United States. Even if Bush scores a total success in the war, the voters have a short attention span and within months could be expected to turn their attention back to their concern with their own futures.
President Bush already has had some experience with the fragility of popularity in the opinion polls. He sailed through the first 18 months of his stewardship with approval ratings that exceeded even those at the same point in their presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower, then saw those ratings drop precipitously -- from above 70 percent to just over 50 percent -- after he reversed himself on his campaign promise of "no new taxes" and seemed uncertain in handling the budget deficit negotiations.
So it would be a mistake to say on the basis of the first military successes that the president has scored a political triumph with his gamble on war. The one thing that can be said is that he has shown a willingness to take an enormous political risk to defeat Saddam Hussein.