The kicking syndrome

March 15, 1991

"By God," President Bush declared after the Persian Gulf War was won, "we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome."

Many interpretations may be put on this statement, but generally the president was taken to mean that 17 years after a humiliating defeat in Vietnam, America had banished self-doubt and emerged once again as the self-confident colossus of the globe. Margaret Thatcher, visiting America last week, verified this belief by declaring that Bush got it right when he said the United States is the sole nation which has both the moral authority and the military wherewithal to make the world's miscreants behave.

A less generous interpretation of Bush's remark, however, might be this: George Bush is a man who just loves to kick. Remember his remark just before his debate with the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, in the 1984 campaign? "We're gonna kick a little ass tonight." And remember his remark as he was preparing to go to war against Saddam Hussein? "We're gonna kick his ass."

You gotta hand it to him, ol' George Bush is an equal-opportunity ass-kicker.

Wednesday in Canada Bush was flexing his legs, so to speak, with threats of kicks yet to come. Having already warned Iraq not to use chemical weapons to put down internal rebellion, Bush told Saddam not to use helicopters, either.

The president then went on to warn Iran not to take advantage of the chaotic post-war conditions to seize Iraqi territory. And if Iran and Iraq fail to heed Bush's warnings? Well, remember, despite all those winsome photos of the men and women coming home, there are still 514,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. Was Bush saying that he's now prepared to send those troops into both Iraq and Iran?

Moreover, this temptation to kick first and ask questions later presupposes that Bush is prescient enough -- or "moral" enough, if you will -- to know what is "right" in every dispute in the world. But what happens if gangs of "rebels" start indiscriminately shooting or burning in Baghdad, and the police use helicopters and tear gas to restore order? Does that violate Bush's ban?

And what if anti-Saddam rebels in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, should prevail, then secede from Iraq and become a part of Iran? After all, if Lithuania can secede, why not Basra? Or would such a development constitute an Iranian "grab" of Iraqi territory?

But such subtle complexities do not seem to trouble Bush. He has replaced the "Vietnam syndrome" with the "kicking syndrome." And he may have given a new meaning to Teddy Roosevelt's definition of the presidency as "a bully pulpit."

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