Washington -- FOR GOOD reason, President Bush is squirming defensively about his tolerance of the slaughter of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq. Beyond the debate about whether he did or didn't encourage them to revolt against Saddam Hussein, it is indisputable that after justifying the U.S. attacks on Iraq in mid-January on high moral grounds he is now putting those grounds on the back burner in dealing with the tragic aftermath.
The White House obviously hopes that the tardy dispatch of humanitarian aid will paper over its callous hands-off policy at a time the United States as a conquering force could have stayed the vengeance of Saddam's defeated but clearly not decimated military machine. To argue at this point that extending the terms of the cease-fire to the use of all aircraft, tanks and other heavy armament against civilian populations would have been meddling in the internal affairs of another country is preposterous on its face, since the United States already occupies an estimated 20 percent of Iraqi territory.
When it served Bush's purpose, early on, he did not hesitate to cast American actions in purely moral terms. For months before the American offensive in January, he was hard-pressed to convince the American people of the justification for offensive use of U.S. troops -- until he set aside the economic and political rationales and began casting Saddam as Adolf Hitler in a Middle East morality play. That very comparison indicated that Saddam had to be ousted, and if Bush did not say in so many words that the U.S. would help to get rid of him, he left a very strong impression to that effect.
On Feb. 15, for example, the president said of the war: "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step down." Two days later, when asked at Kennebunkport, "Is it a goal to topple Saddam?" Bush replied: "It's the goal. The goals have been spelled out by me, and by the coalition partners and the goals remain the same . . . I wouldn't weep if they put him aside."
On March 1, the president, when asked whether he thought Saddam might be overthrown, said: "In my own view, I've always said that it would be -- that the Iraqi people should put him aside." And on March 13, he observed that Iraq's use of helicopters to suppress insurrections "has got to be resolved before we're going to have any permanence of any cease-fire." Yet he did nothing when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, in his own words, got "suckered" into permitting such use under the ruse that it was needed merely for official transportation in a country whose bridges had been demolished.
In another of the war's ironies, the heavy television coverage of the highly sophisticated American air assaults that shortened the war and sent Bush soaring in the polls is now being undercut by nightly television of the desperate attempts by hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians to escape Saddam's slaughter. The scenes are taking some of the bloom off the yellow-ribbon parades at home, and off Bush's luster as the warring moralist as well.
The president is said to be concerned that a continued massive American presence in the gulf will likewise undercut the notion that it was put there for limited objectives. But failure to anticipate the horrible consequences of his actions and words on the Iraqi populace does not change the reality of what is now happening in Iraq. The United States does not have to take sides in a civil war in the country to put the squeeze on Saddam to desist even now, when so much of the damage has been done.
At a minimum, the White House's handling of the situation has been a public-relations fiasco, from Bush's responding to questions on the slaughter as he finished a round of golf in Florida to his insistence that after reviewing every statement he had made "there was never an implication that the United States would use force beyond the objectives which we so beautifully achieved." Maybe there was no implication on his part of the use of force to overthrow Saddam. But there was no suggestion either that the victorious side would stand by and let the vanquished forces slaughter their own people in the aftermath.