A KEY question - perhaps the key question related to the US military commitment in the Persian Gulf - is how long American public support can be sustained. This question can be broken down into several additional queries - all of which are being pondered by President Bush and his advisers: If, when fully ready to go on the offensive (say, in mid-October), the United Nations forces - predominantly American, of course - move into Kuwait, will the US public back this initiative in the absence of any further major provocation by Iraq?
Over breakfast the other morning, Lee Hamilton, an influential Democratic congressman, indicated that he and many others in Congress wouldn't go along. They back the American presence in the Gulf but have no taste for the US initiating a shooting war unless there are additional Iraqi acts of aggression or terrorism.
A recent poll shows that 85 percent of Americans are supporting the US military mission to the Mideast, and that most of them would back a shooting war - if all else fails. That could be read in no other way than this, it seems to me:
The public is withholding its endorsement of military action that would mean the loss of American lives. That is, the provocation from Saddam Hussein that prompted the initial US response wouldn't necessarily be enough to bring about widespread public approval.
Another visitor at breakfast was former Deputy Secretary of State Joseph Sisco, an adviser to the Bush administration on the Middle East. On the subject of public attitudes a newsman asked: ``How are Americans going to take it when the body bags begin to be sent home and, particularly, when they see it is mainly their boys being killed and that there are, for example, no Japanese losing their lives?''
Sisco said that this, indeed, would pose a problem in sustaining support for the war. But he asserted that there were no comparisons to be drawn between this Persian Gulf crisis and the Vietnam war. Asked whether the US might get ``bogged down in the Gulf'' the way we were in Vietnam, Sisco said, ``Absolutely not.''
Question: What is the US objective in the Gulf?
There seems to be overwhelming congressional and public approval for forcing Saddam to pull out of Kuwait. Beyond that this backing becomes problematical.
There are those like Sen. Richard Lugar, an important figure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who two weeks ago told our group that he believed there was already sufficient provocation for the US to move into Kuwait militarily if it appears that Saddam isn't caving in to the economic sanctions.
If I read Senator Lugar's position right, it is that the final US objective must be to see that Saddam and his militant government is deposed and its capacity to build nuclear and chemical weapons is destroyed. Such a goal, it seems to me, might well entail the movement of American troops eventually into Iraq.
Perhaps most Americans would agree with Lugar, at least at this point - before experiencing the killing that would ensue and possibly endure for a painfully long time, even in a ``short'' war.
Others might agree with Representative Hamilton, who said he did not see it as the US objective to topple Saddam. ``We lived with him before all this,'' he said, ``and we could live with him afterward.'' Hamilton said that Saddam's war potential, including his capacity to build nuclear and chemical weapons, could be destroyed simply by cutting off the export of the materials Saddam would need to build these weapons.
Question: What if the US decides to wait Saddam out until the embargo breaks his resolve - and this means that US troops will just sit there in the desert, month after month? This would be a situation where Saddam had provided no additional major provocation - nothing that would stir up a war frenzy here in the US with a clear public demand that the president conduct a shooting war.
There is no apparent US planning for a long-wait contingency. The expectation is that the economic pinch will get the job done. At least, that's the expectation Mr. Bush is underscoring in his utterances.
Indeed, Bush interprets Saddam's recent outburst of threats as an admission that the embargo is beginning to bite.
But, quite obviously, a kind of stalemate could come to pass, with Saddam hanging tough and the US feeling the economic noose was tightening and that it would be better to wait than to fight.
In such an event, it seems clear that the public would soon become restless. The billions going into the Gulf initiative and its negative impact on our economy would in no time at all cut deeply into the public's enthusiasm for the enterprise.