Bush and Gulf: Staking Claim to High Ground

Tonight's speech and Helsinki summit mark a break with president's vacation strategy

AFTER weeks of intense telephone diplomacy from a golf cart, President Bush has left behind his vacation strategy aimed at showing that his presidency was not engulfed with the Gulf crisis. Between calling a quick summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and tonight's prime-time televised address to Congress, Mr. Bush is seeking to sew his strategy in dealing with Iraq into the larger fabric of a new world order.

On the surface, the United States-Soviet summit in Helsinki on Sunday set a united superpower front against Iraq's invasion of its weak and wealthy neighbor. But some analysts note a subtler point: that in the lack of fanfare and commentary on who outfoxed whom at this summit, it was finally treated more like a meeting of allies than cooperative but rival superpowers.

``The summit really showed the next-level cooperation between the two countries,'' says Tom Griscom, who was communications director in the Reagan White House. ``We've gotten to the point where leaders can sit down very quickly without people spending a lot of time picking a winner and loser.''

After the summit, Mr. Gorbachev himself described the Iraq confrontation as a ``test of the durability of our new approach to solving world problems.''

In his speech tonight, Bush is expected to spell out the US commitment in the Gulf and the larger principles at stake more clearly than he has so far.

Reviews on his tactics during the crisis have been nearly unanimous raves. But as the stakes in Gulf rise, ``Bush has to do a better job of articulating this to the American people. It's not about five dollars on the price of oil [per barrel]. It's about the new world order,'' says Boston College political scientist Marc Landy.

This kind of public address is not the strong suit of a president who is far more comfortable to have the public watch him in action than watch him talk about it.

This is his fourth prime-time address to the nation; two of them were state-of-the-union addresses. The other single-issue address was the launching of his war on drugs a year ago. Bush addressed the nation on television a few days into this crisis, in early August; but at 9 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, many Americans are at work.

``Bush's weakness as a president is the ability to articulate clearly and succinctly our purpose in the Gulf,'' says Bert Rockman, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

The US-led world response to the Iraqi invasion will discourage such aggression throughout the world in coming decades, say several modern historians and foreign affairs scholars. ``What commentators underestimate is the degree to which leaders far removed [from the Gulf situation] watch what's going on'' and learn lessons from it, Dr. Landy says.

The turning back of Iraq, by political or military means, could serve as a signal to others, much as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis signaled that the US was extremely reluctant to use force in the Middle East. ``Hussein blundered, but he blundered based on a sober assessment of the historical record,'' Landy says.

The narrower, more cynical, view of US motives holds that the US has reacted strongly against Iraq because it has an economic stake in Kuwaiti and Saudi oil.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's aggression is wrong to most Americans. Bush has compared him to Adolph Hitler, creating the clear implication that if he is not stopped early he will carry his aggression further.

But the sense of principle is shadowed by the obvious US economic interest in the region. ``So Bush does need to constantly stress the principle at stake,'' says Eugene Wittkopf, a Louisiana State University professor and specialist in foreign affairs.

Bush has an easy argument to make, says to John Mueller, a University of Rochester political scientist and a leading scholar of public support for wars abroad. The argument that the US is acting for economic reasons is weak, he says: ``Wars rarely make sense economically unless they don't last much longer than 12 minutes.''

If troops must wait out a months-long embargo before Iraq leaves Kuwait, he adds, Americans can probably hold fast: ``We've had 50,000 troops in Korea for 30 years. We've had 300,000 troops in Germany for 40 years. There's no reason to think we can't sustain that'' in the Gulf.

But stopping Iraq is a more limited objective than in Vietnam or Korea, and Americans can be expected to weigh the cost more stintingly.

The real sign of the times, Mr. Griscom says, will be Bush's emphasis that the US is no longer going it alone in the world.

The Helsinki summit was perhaps the most striking example. With its lack of pageantry and hyperbole, notes Dr. Wittkopf, it was much more like a summit with one of the NATO allies than with a Soviet leader.

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