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America Abroad: The Bum Rap on Bush

4 minute read
Strobe Talbott

For three months, it was Saddam Hussein vs. most of the world. Then, last week, it suddenly seemed to be George Bush vs. most of his own countrymen, or at least everyone with access to a microphone, an op-ed page or a pulpit. Criticisms ranged from the reasonable (an appeal for the Pentagon not to cancel troop rotations) to the ridiculous (the suggestion that the U.S. is defending Arab princes’ right to polygyny and Swiss bank accounts). But the significance of the controversy lay less in the substance of specific gripes, caveats and misgivings than in the overall tone of collective dithering. An observer, including one in Baghdad, might conclude that the American body politic was showing the first signs of a failure of nerve.

As Bush has acknowledged, his attempts to explain U.S. policy have been less than brilliant. But there has been a hard core of convincing rationale in what he has said from the beginning. Immediately after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Bush stated that if the aggression is allowed to “stand,” it will invite more such outrages around the world and give Saddam an unacceptable degree of control over the lifeblood of the world economy. (To denigrate the importance of oil with talk of “cheap gas” is itself a cheap debating tactic.) From the very day of the invasion, the explicit objective of U.S. policy has been not just deterrence of further Iraqi expansion but also the rollback of Iraq from Kuwait.

At least tacitly, many of Bush’s critics accept that goal. Insofar as there were intelligible themes in last week’s cacophony of kibitzing, ends were less at issue than means. Bush has been relying on a combination of political, economic and military pressures. His decision two weeks ago to beef up the U.S. armed presence is consistent with his previous action and rhetoric. The buildup is also compatible with his preference for peaceful suasion. Unless the threat of force is credible, diplomacy and sanctions don’t stand a chance.

Quite a few of the critics seem to be saying, in effect, Let’s talk Saddam out of Kuwait if we can, but the option of blasting him out is just too ugly to contemplate. Play the game that way, and Saddam wins.

According to another grumble, Bush is betraying his earlier commitment to multilateralism and the new world order. That too is a bum rap. The international alliance, which Bush has been praised for assembling, could have taken shape only behind Desert Shield. The coalition against Saddam will evaporate the moment its members become convinced that Bush is not serious about going to war if necessary. When he sent more troops to the gulf, he was saying, simply, I’m prepared to go to war if necessary.

Apparently only then did many Americans begin to believe their own President. That in itself is a disturbing commentary on Bush’s standing. His considerable achievements as a world statesman have made his performance on the home front, particularly his erratic, shortsighted mismanagement of the economy, seem all the worse by contrast.

Yet it is precisely on the home front that his otherwise able leadership in the gulf crisis has run into its most ominous problem to date. As a result, the chance of success is diminished. All that is left of the great American consensus on the gulf is a chorus of calls for a “national debate.” Fair enough. Congress and the public have every right to insist that the Administration justify the risks it is asking its citizens to run. But criticism of policy should meet the same standards of logic and efficacy as policy itself. So far, what the Administration is doing makes more sense than most of what its critics are saying.

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