LAST FALL, when President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were adroitly constructing the United Nations coalition for the use of force in the Persian Gulf, some critics warned that in doing so they would be tying their own hands.
By involving other nations in the effort to force Iraq out of Kuwait, these critics argued, the United States would then be obliged to consult with these allies on both military and diplomatic moves thereafter, thus limiting its own freedom of action.
Such criticism came particularly from supporters of Israel who from the outset wanted the United States to crush the Iraqi war-making ability and one way or another oust Saddam Hussein.
Those who favored more limited objectives in the gulf praised the coalition-building, saying having a restraining hand on U.S. use of force was desirable and justified if any action in the area was truly to be international.
In any event, the brilliant construction of the U.N. coalition enabled President Bush to go forward with his invasion of Iraq with solid U.N. approval, including the important acquiescence of the Soviet Union. From the start, however, it was clear that the military effort was being masterminded and largely conducted by the United States. Bush's undisguised hostility toward Saddam Hussein cast the war increasingly in personal terms.
This climate in turn triggered widespread speculation, despite White House denials, that Bush intended to go beyond the objectives of the U.N. resolutions, seeking to crush Iraq entirely and get rid of Saddam with a decisive if bloody ground offensive.
It was at this point that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev entered the picture in precisely the way that those critics of the coalition approach had feared. In taking it upon himself to play the honest broker with Iraq, he put the conflict on a diplomatic track that in effect sought to bypass Bush and deal with the situation as truly a matter for the U.N., not the U.S., to decide.
In doing so, Gorbachev clearly had self-serving motives. One was to step back onto the international stage again himself to take the focus off his deep troubles at home with the Baltic states and with internal critics. Another was to get the Soviet Union back as a player in the Middle East -- if on the cheap, since the Kremlin had given only moral support to the U.N. coalition.
At the same time, Saddam Hussein's acceptance of a deal clearly not acceptable to Bush likewise was an attempt to shift the war-or-peace decision to the U.N. in time to frustrate any U.S.-directed effort to obliterate Iraq's war machine and remove Saddam, or at least render him politically impotent.
In all this, Saddam was well aware that the currently shaky state of Soviet-U.S. relations was a situation he might exploit. He counted on Bush's desire to help Gorbachev with his domestic dilemma to persuade the American president to swallow his own wishes for a tougher outcome, and reluctantly buy the deal.
But Bush, having successfully weathered all previous attempts to split the U.N. coalition, instead dug in. Touching base with the other major leaders in the coalition and conferring with Gorbachev, Bush won approval instead to issue the flat ultimatum to Saddam to start withdrawing from Kuwait by the specified time or face the ground war to force him out -- along with whatever other perils it might entail.
In the end, the U.N. coalition proved to be not an inhibition to Bush but a reinforcement at the critical juncture. If there was a misjudgment on the side of Gorbachev and Saddam, it may have been in offering what on its face was a totally unacceptable set of conditions to the withdrawal from Kuwait.
In not only ignoring the specific U.N. requirement of reparations to rebuild Kuwait but also demanding that Iraq be rebuilt, Saddam assured rejection by the coalition. In seeking a lifting of sanctions that would have made possible the revival of the Iraqi war machine, he gave Bush an arguing point for pressing his unwavering demand for an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.
In terms of domestic politics, President Bush could not have wished for a better outcome. He was able to demonstrate at a critical point that his tough posture had the U.N. coalition behind it, that he had not knuckled under to Gorbachev and that Saddam's transparent bid to buy time was futile.
Bush's popularity at home, already soaring, will now go sky-high.