Just like President Bush's approval ratings, the glitter of America's triumph in the gulf war, which started one year ago today, is diminishing fast. Saddam Hussein is still in power, presiding over the agony of his people, and a year from today he may still be there while Mr. Bush may be putting in his last full week in office. Such is the bitter fruit of a victory that brought so much promise.
Indeed, the president's penchant for exaggerating that victory -- for proclaiming "a new world order" in which the United States would be the one and only superpower -- is part of the disillusion found among Americans obsessed with recession and forebodings of U.S. decline.
The defeat of Iraq did accomplish certain objectives. It stopped a regional bully from gobbling up a weaker neighbor, Kuwait. It prevented the greater danger of an Iraqi seizure of Saudi Arabian oil fields, which would have given Baghdad effective control over half the world's oil supplies. It shocked Middle East protagonists into peace talks between Israel and its Arab foes. It encouraged release of the hostages in Lebanon. And it emboldened and empowered the United Nations to stop aggressions and conflicts where, in Cold War times, it could not intervene. Yet, in retrospect, the gulf war is but an episode when compared with 1991's truly epic event -- the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
For George Bush, who personalized the war, and for many Americans who considered it a means of putting Vietnam behind them, it restored national confidence. American military leaders could show their stuff, commanding and coordinating a high-technology task force that overwhelmed a battle-seasoned enemy. But after it was over, questions began to arise. Lots of them.
There was, first of all, the debate whether the Bush high command stopped the war too soon, before the trap closed on Republican Guard troops who later proved to be Saddam Hussein's salvation rather than the hoped-for source of his overthrow. There was the spectacle of so much blood and iron expended to put an autocratic regime back in power in Kuwait. There was the symbolism of America armed to the hilt but so broke that it had to dun its allies to pay for the war.
Finally, there was the recession, which actually began about the time of Iraq's Aug. 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait and continued on and on, past a short-lived burst of wartime euphoria. Suddenly the foreign policy expertise that got Mr. Bush so much favorable coverage and sent his approval ratings to a stratospheric 91 percent turned almost into a liability. The president was accused of indifference to bad times at home. The leader of the one and only superpower found himself stymied in dealing with vital trade issues with the Europeans and the Japanese. As his approval rating slipped below the 50 percent mark, the image of the president was not as commander in chief but as a hapless politician once again asking the oppressed Iraqi people to finish the job he did not finish.