WASHINGTON — THE SOVIET Union's peace plan distills a central question about President Bush's conduct of the war in the Persian Gulf: Did the president make a political mistake by personalizing a war to liberate Kuwait into a confrontation between Saddam Hussein and himself?
From the outset, the official rationale for the U.S. military action has been the United Nations resolutions demanding the Iraqis withdraw from Kuwait. That is the whole basis for the formation of the coalition of 28 nations arrayed against Iraq. But it also has been obvious almost from the outset that Bush intended to destroy Iraq's future military capability and to force Saddam himself from any position of power in the future.
Even before the bombing started in the gulf, the president had compared Saddam to Adolf Hitler. Bush and other government spokesmen have talked repeatedly of holding Saddam "personally accountable" for his treatment of prisoners and have suggested there might be war crimes trials to deal with Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait. Just the other day Bush took things a step further by suggesting publicly that the Iraqi military might do themselves a favor by rising up and removing Saddam from power.
The personalizing of the war against Saddam Hussein has a sound strategic rationale. Although the Soviets might be satisfied to leave him in power, the Israelis and such key partners in the alliance as the Saudis obviously have compelling reasons to want both the Iraqi leader himself and his military power destroyed. They are the ones, after all, who have to live with the Middle East that is left after the war is over.
But President Bush also had sound political reasons for focusing on Saddam. The Iraqi leader's record of mindless brutality has been so thoroughly spelled out that it has been easy to demonize him. That, in turn, has helped build strong support for Bush's aggressive conduct of the war. Restoring the emir of Kuwait is pale stuff compared to ridding the world of another Hitler.
More to the point, the president originally had to deal with the charges that the war was being waged solely for economic reasons -- that is, to protect oil supplies that largely benefit Japan and Germany. Bush countered by depicting the war as a principled campaign against an aggressor who threatened the "new world order" -- a case made much easier by the bizarre
conduct of the enemy leader.
The result has been support for the president at extraordinary levels. The most recent opinion poll shows 81 percent of Americans approve Bush's handling of the war, and 78 percent support a ground offensive if it is necessary to accomplish the president's aims.
But the operative political question is what Americans would think of a resolution of the war that left Saddam Hussein in power even if his military machine were destroyed. Would that be judged the kind of total success that has seemed so within the president's grasp? Or would it be considered the kind of limited success whose costs might be subject to internal political debate?
Such questions cannot be answered now with any assurance. For one thing, it is clear that the answers would depend on what the cost in casualties may be from a ground offensive that goes beyond simply liberating Kuwait. Will it be necessary for U.S. forces to pursue Saddam all the way to Baghdad? Beyond that, these judgments will depend on the shape of the new Middle East once the fighting is over. Will it be necessary, for example, for the U.S. to leave substantial forces in the Persian Gulf if Saddam is not removed from power? Would Saddam be able to present himself as a hero to Arabs as Gamel Abdul Nasser did a generation ago?
President Bush says the Soviet plan for peace falls "well short of what would be required" for peace without spelling out his own definition of what would be required. But the personalization of the confrontation between Bush and Saddam Hussein suggests that the president cannot accept a solution that doesn't take the Iraqi leader totally out of the picture.
U.S. military briefers have been saying for weeks now that Iraq's capacity to wage a nuclear war or to develop more chemical and biological weapons has been destroyed by the bombing campaign. The Iraqi air force and navy have been shattered, and its ground troops subjected to unprecedented bombing. But even allowing Saddam Hussein to preside over the wreckage may be more than President Bush can swallow.