Attack of xenophobia: Who cares about the Kurds? On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- THE FIRST opinion poll results tend to confirm the seat-of-the-pants judgment of political professionals that Americans really don't care much one way or the other about the chaos inside Iraq today. In political terms, that is extremely good news for President Bush.

This mild xenophobia is nothing new. Despite all of President Ronald Reagan's efforts for eight full years to enlist public hTC opinion behind the contras in Nicaragua -- the ones he called "the freedom fighters" -- he was never able to develop broad, grass-roots support for U.S. involvement in Central America. It was a cause dear to the hearts of only a small band of ideologues on the far right of the Republican Party.

In this case, an ABC News-Washington Post survey made last week found fewer than 30 percent of Americans believe the United States has any "moral obligation" to help the rebel Shiites and Kurds who are being pounded into submission by Saddam Hussein. And 69 percent say they approve of the way President Bush is handling the situation, meaning with a policy that specifically rejects helping the rebels.

The poll even found that voters by 2 to 1 agreed that Bush was right in encouraging the rebels against Saddam Hussein, a policy that is being hotly debated among the experts who argue it is now being betrayed by U.S. inaction.

What is particularly striking about the survey is that it was made after several days of televised reports of battered Shiite refugees in the south and Kurds fleeing through mountain passes in the north -- just the kind of disaster pictures that ordinarily elicit a strong, sympathetic response. One explanation may be that the electorate is still too caught up in celebrating the military success in the Persian Gulf to begin quibbling about the messiness of the aftermath.

In practical political terms, the findings seem to support the caution of Democrats who -- with rare exceptions -- have been cringing in the corner hoping the whole issue will go away.

A few, including Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Sen. Albert Gore Jr., a potential presidential candidate, have said the U.S. should have prevented Saddam Hussein from using the helicopter gunships against the rebels just as he was barred from using fixed-wing planes. But there has been nothing approaching a consensus of criticism of the Bush policy.

The situation is not static, of course. There is always the possibility that Saddam Hussein will go to such excesses in putting down his opposition that public opinion in the United States will turn in favor of taking sterner measures against him. There is also the distinct possibility Saddam will resist, reject or ignore the cease-fire terms imposed by the United Nations and thus change the whole political context once again.

So far, nonetheless, the evidence suggests the popular approval of the way President Bush conducted the war is so overwhelming he is being given almost a blank check for his policies in dealing with the continuing chaos inside Iraq -- so long as it does not involve using U.S. troops again.

The result is that the Democrats are reduced to hoping, first, that the war issue will fade as an important concern long before the 1992 election and, second, that recognition of the tragedy of the aftermath in the Middle East will rub some of the gloss off Bush's success. Both are probably reasonable expectations.

But what is lacking among the Democrats is anything that could be called strong leadership. Except for Gore, the Democrats who are considered serious possibilities for the nomination next year have been conspicuously silent. Others with the credentials of leadership positions or special expertise on national security issues seem to feel hamstrung because most of them -- again, Gore is an exception -- voted in January for extended use of sanctions rather than military force. They have now seen that vote depicted as evidence of weakness on national defense and even, according to Republican Sen. Phil Gram, "appeasement." Now they have seen polls suggesting the January votes may be a political burden next year.

These Democrats are probably making a serious mistake, however. Politicians win respect, even among voters who disagree with them on a specific issue, when they show leadership rather than following the latest poll figures. The latter only reinforces a cynicism in the electorate that, right now, is fully justified.

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