As his great triumph unravels, it's painful to hear Bush

A. M. Rosenthal

July 07, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

SOMETIMES, as the one great triumph of his presidency unravels, it becomes almost too painful to watch George Bush, and to hear him.

Look at what they are doing, he cries out to Americans -- look at those people out there who want to change the history of the war in the gulf, turn something good and noble into something that is bad, just for election-year gain.

Reality is the reverse. Not enough political attention is being paid the truth about what happened before and after the war. Not enough political accounting is demanded by Congress and the public, and not enough political capital is being made by Bill Clinton or Ross Perot.

But that will change. November is four months away.

It was, of course, George Bush, not his enemies, who spoiled the triumph of Desert Storm, who tarnished the good and the noble. That does not need a lot of arguing, just one question:

How many Americans who supported the war would have done so had he told them in advance that Saddam Hussein would be allowed to remain in power, that he could go on slaughtering Kurds and other Iraqis who opposed him, that within months he would be rebuilding his army and a year later still dodging U.N. nuclear inspections?

And now, every day, more details come out about what we have really known for a long time. Before the war, there was a Bush-Baker plan on how to deal with Saddam Hussein. It was not to damage him, but to strengthen him.

Is there an American left who does not know that the United States gave him loans for which they are now paying with their taxes? That money was used by Saddam to help him buy missile power and nuclear technology.

Anybody out there who still does not know that the United States intervened in the war between the Iranian and Iraqi tyrannies, choosing Baghdad, when we should have said to hell with them both?

And now we are told by ABC and Newsweek on Ted Koppel's Nightline" that we not only helped Saddam Hussein with arms, money and intelligence, but engaged in a secret war against Iran to save his skin. Either that is a damnable lie or a crime was committed.

In either case, how could Mr. Bush have decided to make the United States the ally of the Saddam dictatorship -- and then kept helping it after Iran's defeat? How could he have done this -- not to Iran, but to us?

To this day Bush-Baker do not understand that appeasement is futile and that even when dictators try to destroy each other they remain the natural enemies of democracy, freedom and peace.

Bush-Baker so far have escaped the full political impact of the buildup of Saddam Hussein. Yes, Americans are caught up in economic problems that don't leave them desire to think of much else. But there's another reason, deep in our minds and bellies.

Americans have a great deal of our national pride and personal esteem invested in our presidents, any and all of them. The Bush-Baker strategy built up Saddam Hussein to the point where he could take on the United States and survive. That certainly could lead to another wrenching official investigation of a president, and we know it.

The very thought of another unmaking of a president, of the revelations about lies and cover-ups and who knew what when, sits terribly heavy in us.

Will Ross Perot or Bill Clinton push the issue toward public knowledge of the full truth?

So far Mr. Perot has a perfect record on foreign affairs and their meaning for America -- a round perfect nothing. He has shown us nothing about his thinking on how to deal with the world -- no ideas, no philosophy, no strategy, nothing about his heart or spine.

This is an intelligent man -- intelligent enough to know that the first day in the White House somebody would hand him a problem involving the essence of foreign affairs -- human lives. He will have to show us in advance that he can ride that kind of horse.

Mr. Clinton is a serious student of foreign affairs who has spoken plainly about the dangers of helping dictators. Speaking even plainer about the Bush-Baker-Baghdad fiasco might upset a lot of Americans. But he might convince them it is less hurtful to face reality than to run from it.

That is what presidents are supposed to do, whatever side of the Texas-Arkansas line they come from.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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