The Politics of the Gulf War

January 19, 1992

By trotting out his victory in the gulf war as a trump card for re-election, President Bush is exploiting an advantage that has PTC rarely been available to an incumbent chief executive. The other George -- George Washington -- was the triumphant leader of the American Revolution. And William McKinley capitalized on his successful conduct of the Spanish American War to get a second lease on the White House. His case is probably the closest parallel to the present situation.

There is a possibility, as we have mentioned here before, that the gulf war could lose political value for Mr. Bush if Saddam Hussein remains in power and/or the Democrats succeed in turning his victory into just another piece of evidence that the president is transfixed on foreign policy.

On balance, however, Mr. Bush should have the better of this issue provided he does not beat it to a pulp. Instead, he may be wise to turn it into a symbol of his track record in a turbulent world.

The president has effectively helped shut down Central American wars that were undermining the U.S. position in the hemisphere. He has used the dissolution of the Soviet Union to enlist Moscow's help in eliminating Cold War proxy conflicts and in dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He was on the mark in supporting German reunification while the French and the British were holding back. His is the right position in championing free trade policies against the virulent protectionism now infecting the Democratic Party. Indeed, his trip to Japan might have appeared as more of a fiasco than it was because it was an exception to a generally good record.

The Bush-McKinley analogy should be kept in mind as the gulf war issue unfolds. Democrats under William Jennings Bryan in 1902 assailed McKinley as an imperialist acquiring far-flung colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines It was, in effect, a debate between Manifest Destiny, then all the rage, and the first George's aversion to foreign entanglements. McKinley won. On his ticket was Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill.

In the run-up to the Persian Gulf war, the Democratic leadership in Congress reverted to a modern version of Bryanism by opposing the use of force to oust Iraq from Kuwait. It was a stand Mr. Bush is not going to let them forget. Perhaps the president is playing his trump card too early. Perhaps it will cash few chips if the recession lingers and the Bad Man of Baghdad remains in power. But in our view it is a real issue, a legitimate issue. National security should not be obscured by public upset over the recession.

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