The President Is in a Bind

APRESIDENT'S lot is not an easy one. President Bush announces that he's going to send another 150,000 troops into the Gulf. This move is aimed at Saddam Hussein, to let him know that Bush means business. Instead, it ignites resistance to war in Congress and among many Americans.

Saddam Hussein must have noted the public response in the United States to Bush's troop-buildup. Saddam announced an additional 250,000 troops of his own last week. So, it can be argued, he may well have decided that Bush is less likely now, rather than more likely, to go on the offensive.

If Bush means it when he says that Saddam ``has only a short while'' to give in to the US and United Nations demand to depart Kuwait, he very likely isn't being fully believed by his adversary.

Indeed, within the White House itself there is a growing perception that the option of initiating a shooting war in the Gulf - unless, of course, there is further provocation by Iraq - is being closed off. A public figure who meets regularly with top administration foreign-policy makers said privately the other day that the impact of the latest troop buildup was to ``significantly reduce'' what he called the ``political consensus'' behind Bush getting involved in a shooting war. And he said Bush's people were wrestling with that problem right now.

So it is that while signaling to Saddam that his days of peace are numbered if he doesn't comply, the president and his advisers are giving more and more heed to letting the economic sanctions have more time to work - perhaps waiting for another three or four months.

They see that this move to what they call their ``patience option'' would quiet many of their critics in Congress and dampen down the incipient protest movement.

Yet if Mr. Bush lets all those troops sit there for months in the Gulf, he will probably find a growing public resistance to the US being there at all.

There may not be open protest. But he's bound to be called indecisive and blamed for all the money being spent there. Parents and loved ones will call upon him to bring the troops home.

Morale of US forces in Saudi Arabia will doubtless fade. And increasing numbers of reserves will have to be called up to bring about the replacement policy that the president will have to keep in motion.

Meanwhile, day after day the president is trying to clarify why he has made this military commitment in the Mideast. That's what comes from being there so long.

Had Saddam caved in immediately to the economic sanctions and the military threat being imposed, everyone or almost everyone would have been satisfied with the rationale for being there that was being used. People here and abroad in the early days seemed quite satisfied when the president said this was a response to ``naked aggression.'' The US, he said, was not going to stand aside and let this big nation gobble up a small nation. And he asserted that Saddam was a threat to international stability.

All this was enough for Mr. Bush to say in the first week or two of the US involvement in the Gulf. Then his critics began to leap in, all with the same lament: ``The president simply has to clarify why we are over there.''

Mr. Bush should have left well enough alone. He then compared Saddam with Hitler. This, for many people, was an overreach. Then his secretary of state said that victory in the Gulf was directly related to jobs in the US. Perhaps it was - but the rationale did not win critical acclaim among the editorial writers.

As time has gone on, the president has been hearing this cynical assertion among his critics: ``The real reason we are there is oil - we want to protect our oil supply.''

Bush can see that the longer the standoff goes on in the Gulf the more this cynical attitude will gain ground. Yet he also can see that to move quickly into a shooting war with Iraq would likely stir up a firestorm of protest at home. It isn't easy being president.

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