WASHINGTON — THE BATTLE, PRESIDENT BUSH said, had been joined.
To him, the issue was clear. He had given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein five-and-a-half months to withdraw his troops from Kuwait, five-and-a-half months for diplomacy, for talking. Now the time for talking was over. He had even allowed most of another day to pass after the deadline.
Not only had Saddam Hussein rebuffed all the last-minute entreaties, he had continued to fortify his defensive positions in Kuwait. Even the more equivocal French now declared there could be no doubt that the time for action had come.
Yet from Boston to San Francisco, protesters were unimpressed and hundreds were arrested. This war, they said, they didn't want, no matter how clear the circumstances. Some even said the United States had no role -- shouldn't be involved in the Persian Gulf at all.
And although Democrats on Capitol Hill were struggling over a new resolution supporting the effort, to balance their votes last week opposing it, questions about what the United States role was, is and should be continued to divide the country. President Bush, evidently, still was only half successful articulating his reasons for being there.
It didn't matter that in his speech Wednesday night he had repeated, for the umpteenth time, that our purpose was to achieve Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, restoration of the legitimate government and a degree of stability in the region. There were plenty who weren't listening -- who, when asked, said they didn't know why we were there.
Was it that three reasons are too many to digest? The issue too diffuse? That George Bush hadn't simplified it enough? Or that the critics heard it and rejected it?
The very certainty of the president's approach added urgency to the question: what is the New World Order that Mr. Bush and his secretary of state keep talking about?
Its main feature was the collapse of the Soviet Union's capacity to project its military strength in regional conflicts around the world, leaving that role to the sole remaining superpower, the United States. Freed from the danger of nuclear superpower confrontation over local conflicts, would the United States start projecting its awesome power into more of these smaller conflicts, settling each one on the side it chose?
No, it won't, replies Jay Kosminsky, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank which laid much of the groundwork for Bush administration thinking. The decline of Soviet power, if it continues, he says, will offer the United States "a tremendous opportunity" with its allies to define Western interests and to become the "key guarantor" of those interests.
But that does not mean, he says, that it will define those interests any differently than it has in the past. They include the security of borders, open waterways for trade, protection of key allies including those on the Pacific rim, protection of American property and citizens, and the security of an oil supply.
This last point, say Mr. Kosminsky and other analysts, is not only an economic issue. It is not a matter of price so much as a matter of survival. In the current crisis, for example, it is a question of "whether [the United States can tolerate] 75 percent of the world oil supply divided between Baghdad and Moscow." That percentage presupposes Iraqi conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia.
The fact that Kuwait is a small country, undemocratic by American standards, and not foundadmirable by many is irrelevant to the issue of interests, it is argued. Saddam Hussein had demonstrated an appetite for expanding Iraq's borders in his eight-year war with Iran, ultimately returned the territory seized in that war and turned his military southward toward Kuwait.
A failure to respond now would almost certainly have required a far costlier confrontation later, at a time when Iraq could be expected to have completed its development of usable nuclear weapons, it is argued.
The grounds for intervention thus are more heavily weighted on the side of interests than principles, though Mr. Bush frequently emphasizes principle, specifically the need to disallow acquisition of territory by conquest. This one cuts both ways, however, when Arabs reply that the principle is ignored in the case of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The formal reply, that Israel's occupation of those territories occurred after an attack on Israel by Arab states while the occupation of Kuwait occurred as a result of an attack on Kuwait by its larger neighbor, doesn't satisfy those who say their homes are under Israeli occupation.
When members of Congress asked rhetorically a week ago in debate on the war powers resolutions whether America would intervene if Libya invaded Chad, they knew the answer was no because Chad has no oil. The United States for years has not worried about expelling Turkey from Cyprus or China from Tibet, not even Syria from Lebanon -- which was invaded while America was an ally.
Principle took a back seat to interests. In the New World Order, as in the old one, interests are the basis of politics.
And war, as von Clausewitz said, is the pursuit of politics by other means.