WASHINGTON — THE messy aftermath of the Gulf war has dimmed the glow of idealism and moral leadership from the Desert Storm triumph. With mixed emotions Americans have watched the return of the pragmatic Realpolitik of balances of power, lesser evils, and superpower helplessness.
Most Americans support President Bush's hands-off approach to postwar Iraq, but opinion is far more divided than was public support for Operation Desert Storm.
The political impact in this country, according to political consultants and opinion experts, is not likely to change public views of Mr. Bush or cut into the approval of how he handled the Gulf war. But it is likely to help turn public attention away from the Gulf and the coalition victory there.
"People felt very good about their country. This was a very uplifting moment for Americans," says Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "As it begins to look less idealistic, more sullied and pragmatic, they'll want to move on to other issues."
"Americans don't like messes," concurs Richard Sobel, a political scientist at Princeton University who specializes in public opinion and foreign policy. In the long run, he adds, American qualms about the aftermath of the war will seem minor compared with their support of the war itself.
Saddam's mass killing of Kurds in the north of Iraq and Shiites in the south has created as many as a million Iraqi refugees, while American troops look on in frustration and disgust. (Iraq's acceptance of cease-fire resolution heightens UN role as peacekeeping force. Story, Page 3.)
Despite the desperate pleas for help from Kurdish rebels, Bush spent much of last week asserting that the US would not allow itself to be drawn into the civil war in Iraq.
On Friday, Bush ordered an Air Force airlift to begin Sunday dropping food, blankets, clothing, tents, and other relief supplies over northern Iraq for the embattled civilians there. Britain and Germany had already announced similar missions. He also dispatched Secretary of State James Baker III to Turkey to review the refugee situation. Mr. Baker is already in the Middle East this week.
If Bush was sympathetic to Iraqi civilians, however, the administration was no more willing than before to step in to stop the onslaught of the Iraqi military as it drove the Kurds into the northern mountains and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Critics of Bush's position have focused on his decision not to shoot down helicopter gunships, which Iraq is using against civilians in rebellious areas.
The critics have ranged from Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee, who supported Bush's authority to go to war in January, to Otto Lambsdorff, chairman of the Free Democratic Party in Germany, who called the Bush position "pure cynicism."
Some critics put a special responsibility on Bush's shoulders to support the rebels, because he has encouraged the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam.
As part of the agreement that coalition officers made with Iraqi commanders last month to forge a temporary cease-fire, Iraq was barred from flying military jets and from using helicopters except to ferry personnel around the country.
When Iraq defied the agreement by launching two jets last month, American fighters shot one down; the other landed voluntarily. When the Iraqi military began using helicopters against rebels in the civil war, President Bush warned Iraq against the infraction. But in the weeks since, the Iraqis have continued to use the helicopters, and American and coalition forces have taken no further action.
During the Desert Shield and Desert Storm phases of the Gulf conflict, Bush cast it in highly moral, idealistic terms. It was an uncompromising battle of the world against a dangerous aggressor. The decision now to leave Iraq's grisly politics to the Iraqis is a pragmatic one designed to keep the US out of a situation that has no appealing outcome in sight.
"The way that the aftermath of the war was handled and the ambiguity of whether we wanted to get rid of Saddam as a war goal have led to consequences that Americans are not going to want to think about," says Laurie Mylroie, a Harvard Middle East specialist and biographer of Saddam who has advocated a hard line against him all along.
Yet, notes Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, the Bush policy "has been and is consistent" since early August. "The president has been clear that we have a limited mission."
Polls show ambivalence
If the US shot down Iraqi helicopters, he says, then American prestige would be committed to the rebel cause, which would draw the US deeper into assuring their victory.
Most Americans are unwilling to get involved in the Iraqi rebellion (55 percent according to a USA Today poll Friday), but polls also show an ambivalence.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday found that 69 percent approved of Bush's approach to the rebels. Yet 78 percent thought the US should go after the Iraqi helicopters. Clear majorities favored options such as killing Saddam, arming the rebels, resuming the air war against the Iraqi military, and threatening to resume the war unless Saddam steps down.