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Bush and the Gulf: Time For Doubt

8 minute read
Otto Friedrich

All of a sudden the threat of war has begun to hit home in America. When President Bush first sent U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia last August, he explained that their mission was “wholly defensive,” to protect that country against an Iraqi attack. But right after the Nov. 6 midterm election, he abandoned that explanation and announced a huge new buildup, to 380,000, designed “to ensure that the coalition has an adequate offensive military option.”

To many Americans, it sounded as though Bush was planning to lead the U.S. into a war to oust Iraq from the conquered oil sheikdom of Kuwait. Now doubts have begun to arise about whether the nation really supports a move that some Pentagon experts predict would bring an estimated 20,000 U.S. casualties within the first few weeks of fighting.

Across the nation, a small but growing antiwar movement has started to mobilize. The most significant figures in this emerging debate are the leaders of Congress, who were curiously quiescent on the subject during the election campaign. They have begun to question Bush’s course, particularly his unwillingness to seek congressional approval in advance for offensive military operations. Some lawmakers are motivated mainly by partisan politics; others seem most concerned with protecting their constitutional prerogatives.

But there is also a genuine concern about the apparent drift toward war for uncertain or ill-defined goals. Perhaps most striking was a request from Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana that the recessed Congress be called back into special session to debate a possible declaration of war. Lugar seemed confident that the Senate would back the President, if not in a declaration of war then in a more general resolution of support for his policy toward Saddam Hussein. But that is uncertain, and a close vote might suggest that Congress is not solidly united and thus prove highly damaging to Bush’s strategy of applying pressure on Iraq. A White House spokesman brushed aside the very idea of congressional action as “unnecessary” because it presupposes “a war that we hope does not occur.”

Ordinarily, only a President can call a special session of Congress. But this year, fearing that Bush might go on the offensive during their two-month recess, the lawmakers authorized Senate majority leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley to reconvene the legislature “as necessary.” While Mitchell enjoys having that weapon, he has no great desire for a debate on the Persian Gulf — as long as Bush recognizes that only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war. For his part, Bush does acknowledge Congress’s right to declare war, but he has said that “history is replete with examples where the President had to take action,” and that he “would have no hesitancy at all to do so.”

The antagonists met at the White House on Wednesday. To answer the Senators’ challenge, Bush actually took a copy of the Constitution out of his jacket pocket and reminded the legislators that although it gives them the right to declare war, it also names him as Commander in Chief. More significantly, he told them that he had not reached any decision on whether to attack Iraq. Mitchell and Foley both said emphatically that if he did decide he wanted to use force, he would have to get congressional approval. Bush listened politely but promised nothing. The congressional leaders seemed satisfied, but some members did not. The Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees will hold hearings on the crisis after Thanksgiving.

Bush’s strategy is to convince Saddam that if he does not leave Kuwait, he will be driven out — and perhaps lose his life in the process. The current American buildup and all the tough talk are designed to make that threat more credible. But in trying to frighten Saddam, Bush has also succeeded in scaring Americans — and has provided congressional critics with ammunition to snipe at what seems to be a confused and flip-flopping policy.

Meanwhile, Saddam was trying once again to sow dissent among the nations that oppose him. In an interview with ABC’s Peter Jennings, he said he was willing to negotiate with the U.S. but refused to pull out of Kuwait before the talks begin, as Bush has demanded. Scoffed Saddam: “These are preconditions for capitulation.” So far, the debate in Washington and the Iraqi leader’s machinations have not visibly affected the resolve of the alliance. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria declined last week to participate in an emergency Arab summit — proposed by Morocco’s King Hassan to make “a new and last” stab at resolving the crisis peacefully — until Iraq withdraws from Kuwait and its monarchy is restored.

Despite the President’s claims that his main purpose is to resist aggression, a majority of those questioned last week in a poll conducted for TIME and CNN by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman believe the primary U.S. objective is to protect Western oil supplies. Secretary of State James Baker added to that impression last week by offering a pragmatic but uninspiring rationale for the operation: “If you want to sum it up in one word, it’s jobs.”

If Bush really wanted to clear up the confusion, there would be no easier way than to recall Congress into session and demand an explicit expression of support for his policy. Such a resolution, while falling short of a declaration of war, would:

Clarify the President’s intentions. As Bush acknowledged in an interview with CNN last week, “If I haven’t done as clear a job as I might have on explaining this, then I’ve got to do better, because I know in my heart of hearts that what we are doing is right.” Asking Congress for backing would require the President to spell out his objectives in a more cogent way. Though Bush has repeatedly stated that the U.S. would be satisfied with an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the President has hinted that the U.S. might also seek to dismantle Iraq’s war-fighting capability. Many American allies would not support such far-reaching goals.

Clarify Congress’s attitude. Taking a vote would force members to stop trying to have it both ways, voicing doubts about Bush’s plans while doing nothing to stop them. Congressional hearings in the absence of a vote would probably produce nothing more than a cacophony of criticism that Saddam, and America’s European and Arab allies, would view as an indication of U.S. indecision. They might thus tend to undermine, rather than strengthen, the international alliance that Bush has assembled.

Signal U.S. resolve. If passed, a congressional resolution would help convince Iraq of U.S. determination — and prepare the American people for war, should it become necessary. Congressional deliberations would not deprive the U.S. and its allies of the element of surprise. Saddam’s troops are already on full alert; they could be no more certain when an allied attack might come after a congressional vote than they are now.

The White House, nonetheless, has ruled out a special session, partly because of concern that the Democrat-controlled Congress might reject Bush’s strategy. Instead, the Administration’s next move will be at the U.N. Security Council. Baker spent much of last week mobilizing support for a U.S. resolution that would authorize the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait. Such a resolution would provide the Administration with a mandate for going on the offensive even if Congress declined to give one. Baker seems to have the necessary votes in hand. The other permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union — have all indicated they would not veto the measure, though Soviet envoy Yevgeni Primakov last week asked for a delay so that he can make one more try at negotiating a settlement in Baghdad. Since the U.S. holds the Security Council presidency this month, a vote can be expected fairly soon.

This week the President will be in Europe for a gathering of the heads of 34 nations, including Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Then Bush and congressional leaders will be off to the Persian Gulf to spend Thanksgiving with the soldiers in Saudi Arabia, many of whom have been raising questions about the nature of their mission.

In his interview with CNN last week, the President conceded that there is “a ticking of the clock” toward war, in part because public support for his policies is dropping. That, in turn, owes to his failure to convincingly state the case for his strategy. The gravest risk is that Bush may feel compelled to adopt a more aggressive stance before the consensus deteriorates further. The President would be well advised to clarify his goals when he sits down to dinner with the troops. There will be plenty of Americans back home intently listening in.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE

CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 500 adult Americans taked for TIME/CNN on Nov.14 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling is plus or minus 4.4%. ‘Not sures’ omitted.

CAPTION: Is the liberation of Kuwait worth fighting for?

Should President Bush have the option of using military force against Iraq without Congress’s authorization?

Is the main U.S. goal in the Middle East to protect the oil supply or to deter aggression?

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