IT TOOK three years for the war in Vietnam to become controversial. It took the Persian Gulf war about three days.
Clayton K. Yeutter, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, fired the first volley by suggesting that Democrats who voted against authorizing President Bush to go to war "picked the wrong war. If the conflict goes well, that will work against them."
Democrats immediately attacked Yeutter for making the war a partisan issue. "These remarks are deeply troubling," Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., said. "They attempt to politicize this war and to define victory in terms of electoral gain."
It was the Democrats, of course, who made the war a partisan issue in the first place. They defined themselves as the anti-war party on Jan. 12, when 70 percent of congressional Democrats voted against the war resolution. The Democrats made their bed, the Republicans are saying, and we're going to make sure they sleep in it.
Right now, Democrats are lying low. Bush's approval rating is at 84 percent, according to the CBS News-New York Times poll. That ties the highest approval rating ever recorded, for Franklin D. Roosevelt just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He got elected to another term.
On Jan. 12, the public was split over whether the country should go to war against Iraq or wait for the sanctions to work. The Democrats voted to wait. Now three-fourths of the public say America was right to go to war. The Democrats are worried.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein is not the leader of an ideological movement. Nor can he claim to be an Arab nationalist; most Arabs are on America's side. He is driven by pure ambition. There is no one to argue, as many did during the Vietnam war, that the United States is on the wrong side of history.
Could 1992 be another 1972? That was the last time the Democrats defined themselves as an anti-war party ("Come home, America") in the middle of a war. It didn't matter that it was a massively unpopular war. Disgust with the Democrats led the country to reelect the Republican ticket by a landslide majority.
Is there any hope for the Democrats? Remember what Yeutter said: If the war goes well, that will work against the Democrats. Suppose the war does not go well?
What Iraq has to do is turn the war into a quagmire. There are several ways it can do this. One is to draw Israel into the war. As leader of the Arabs against Israel, Saddam Hussein would get the one thing he is missing in this war -- a cause. Other Arab states, including those now fighting Iraq, would face enormous popular pressure to join the war against Israel. Public opinion in Egypt is already reported to be shifting in favor of Iraq.
Another strategy is to draw the United States into a ground war. A bloody land offensive may be the only way to take Kuwait. But at what cost? America would have to fight one of the greatest tank battles in history, with possibly thousands of U.S. casualties. That's why U.S. military strategists want to put the ground war off as long as possible, at least until the enemy is weakened and isolated.
Still another scenario has Iraq holding out for months, and then staging a sudden, surprise offensive. The Iraqis have chemical weapons they could use against Israel. They have Exocet missiles they could use against American ships in the gulf. They have terrifying fuel-air bombs that have never been used before in war.
This is not a military strategy, either. It is a political strategy. It is the same political strategy the North Vietnamese used in the 1968 Tet Offensive. In military terms, the United States won the Tet Offensive. Politically, however, it was a U.S. disaster. Support for the war collapsed, and so did confidence in the nation's leadership.
Another nightmare scenario: The Soviet Union, already in the process of reversing its domestic liberalization policy, might decide to resume the Cold War and start rearming its historic Middle East ally -- Iraq.
So there are many ways the gulf war might not go well. But will that necessarily help the Democrats? The Jan. 12 vote gives the Democrats an obvious message if the war goes badly: "We told you so." There is a problem with that message, however. If people embrace a cause that fails, they will not necessarily find "We told you so" a very inspiring message. More than a few voters would suspect the worst about the Democrats: that they were hoping all along the war would go wrong.
Remember that when Americans turned against the Vietnam War after 1968, they also turned against the anti-war movement. The public's growing opposition to the Vietnam War did nothing to legitimize the anti-war movement, as the 1972 election proved. That's why Democrats have to continue to make it clear that while they have endorsed anti-war sentiment, they have not embraced the anti-war protests. If the Democrats want to survive as a party, they cannot be seen to be undermining the war effort, or rooting for a U.S. defeat.