Winning at home through foreign intimidation

ROGER SIMON

November 18, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

George Bush has been getting a lot of criticism these days just because our economy is in the toilet and Americans are depressed and dismayed.

But why look on the negative side? Why look on the domestic side? On the positive side, Bush is 2-0 when it comes to foreign military adventures.

He may not know how to solve the problems of unemployment, recession, or rising health care costs, but he knows how to drop a bomb, send in a tank, or dispatch an infantry battalion.

In 1989, his first year in office, he won Rookie of the Year honors by invading Panama and snatching Manuel Noriega (who no doubt will go to trial just as soon as we get done with William Kennedy Smith.)

Then, just to prove Panama was no fluke, Bush sent a half-million troops to the Persian Gulf. And even if you can't credit him with a flawless performance (we missed the tag on Saddam Hussein), I think you can credit Bush with a very solid showing.

Now, as revealed last week, Bush may be going for the hat trick. Libya may be the next scalp on his belt.

The reason has everything thing to do with justice and retribution and righteous indignation. And also poll figures. Every time Bush has sent in the planes or the troops, his popularity has gone up. It went up after Panama; it went up after the Persian Gulf war.

Now, with Bush's popularity sinking as he heads into an election year, could he be tempted to launch a military strike to boost his chances of re-election?

Well, it would be crassly political. And it is hard to believe an American president could be capable of that.

The target is tempting. Muammar el Kadafi, the World's Most Nutso Foreign Leader, is now, we say, responsible for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

(We used to think that Syria and Iran did it, but that is no longer a convenient thought. Syria was our ally in the Gulf War and Iran was neutral, which was a big help to us. Bush also needs Syria to make his Mideast peace initiative work. We don't need Libya for anything.)

The fuss made over our indictment last week of two Libyans for the Pan Am bombing was extraordinary even by Washington standards. There were no fewer than three separate high-level press briefings on the same day.

There was a Justice Department briefing, a State Department briefing and a White House briefing. The same message was delivered at all three:

* The Lockerbie bombing was not only the work of the two men indicted, but was "state-sponsored terrorism."

* Kadafi's government was therefore responsible and accountable.

* The United States would do something in response. Military action was not being ruled out.

We have tried to kill Kadafi in the past. In 1986, we launched a bombing raid against Tripoli and Benghazi in response to terrorist attacks on a Berlin disco in which an American serviceman was killed.

We missed Kadafi (though we did manage to kill his infant daughter. We quickly pointed out, however, it was only his "adopted" daughter, so it wasn't like we did anything really bad.)

After that, Kadafi grew very, very quiet. Though Ronald Reagan publicly worried about it, no Libyan death squads showed up in the United States and no immediate revenge was taken.

And we held our raid up to the world as the way you fight terrorism: A guy hits you with a bomb in a disco, you drop tons of bombs on his head.

And then came Lockerbie. Which now appears to be Kadafi's response to our raid on him. We blow up his bunker (and his kid) and he blows up a plane full of people.

Well, as anyone who has ever played a game of tag knows, we are now "it" and it's our turn to tag back.

The two people we have indicted are small fry. It would be nice if we could get them and try them (maybe we could squeeze them in after Noriega) but that is not enough.

Our government made very, very clear last week that the mere trial of two individuals will not square things.

"This was a Libyan government operation from start to finish," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We hold the Libyan government responsible for the murder of 270 people."

"The international community must protect itself from this uncivilized terrorism," Marlin Fitzwater, the presidential spokesman said.

How?

"We don't rule out any options," Fitzwater said. And then he made sure everybody knew he was not ruling out a military strike.

President Bush said "when we get ready to say what we'll do, we'll make it very clear and be definite and do it."

What does this all mean? Well, a few weeks ago, even before the indictments, Democratic Presidential candidate Robert Kerrey, a senator from Nebraska, was asked in New Hampshire whether he thought Bush might launch a military strike in order to win his re-election.

Kerrey said he thought that was possible. "Bill Moyers once described him [Bush] as the most deeply unprincipled man he has ever met," Kerrey said. "And I think there is something to that, at least in his political life."

That's pretty tough. And to think George Bush would launch a military strike out of sheer political opportunism is a pretty cynical thought.

But as the great American philosopher Lily Tomlin once said: "No matter how cynical I get, it's just never enough to keep up."

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