EVEN the balmy Washington weather couldn't warm up the cold blast President Bush has gotten from Capitol Hill this week, as Democratic members of Congress and former top United States officials counseled patience in the Persian Gulf. Senate hearings that began Tuesday kicked off 1-1/2 weeks of Hill testimony by a range of experts designed to boost the role of Congress in policy formation over Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.
Starting with former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, the message was clear: The US must put off military action against Iraq as long as possible to allow sanctions to work.
Perhaps most striking was the advice of former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Crowe, because he retired only in September 1989. Admiral Crowe advised that even if it takes another 12 to 18 months for sanctions to work, the trade-off of avoiding war would be worth it.
``I believe the bulk of the American people are willing to put up with a great deal to avoid war and to avoid casualties a long ways from home,'' he said.
``I counsel patience...,'' the admiral continued. ``War is not neat, it's not tidy and once you resort to it, it's uncertain and it's a mess. And you should ... be sure the stakes justify what you're doing before you just voluntarily jump into a mess.''
Meanwhile, this week has also seen a coalescing of Democratic congressional sentiment against an early use of US military force against Iraq, as several top Hill Democrats have urged the Bush administration to make sure all other options are exhausted before the US goes to war.
In a speech Wednesday to the US Chamber of Commerce, House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri called for a policy of ``patient strength.''
``Do not try to mount an offensive military action in the near future,'' Congressman Gephardt said. Only last week, the Democratic leadership had said that a UN vote to approve a US use of force in the Gulf would bolster the chances for approval of a similar provision on Capitol Hill.
Members from both sides of the aisle have also begun to talk about the possibility of the US sending a special envoy to talk to President Saddam Hussein to make sure he understands US intentions in the Gulf.
Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a Monitor breakfast that such talks would not necessarily lead to negotiations. Rather, they would clarify for the Iraqi leader what he faces in his showdown with the US-led anti-Iraq coalition. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas made similar remarks in an Associated Press interview. The Bush administration has resisted the idea, saying normal diplomatic channels are adequate.
Taken as a whole, the week's pronouncements can't help but have at least some impact on Bush's thinking about Iraq, as a Jan. 15 ``deadline'' for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait nears. Even though this week's hearings feature no current administration officials - they will testify beginning Monday, after the UN has finished its business with the resolution on force - the sum effect has been to present Bush with forceful evidence that he faces a major challenge in marshaling public and congressional opinion.
``I do think it gives him pause,'' says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. ``This is a consensus president, not a shoot-from-the-hip kind of president.''
If anyone came to the defense of the Bush administration's strategy, it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who expressed doubts that the UN sanctions would force Iraq out of Kuwait. The best sanctions will do, he said, is initiate negotiations, which he expects early next year.
Such negotiations would likely be protracted, Dr. Kissinger told the Senate Armed Services Committee, and would present the anti-Iraq coalition with a series of challenges: maintaining the sanctions; ensuring their effectiveness; and keep the military option intact.
``There will be pressures to lift the sanctions and to ease the sanctions. There will be negotiating proposals that will ease our terms. And finally, there will be pressures to withdraw our forces both in the United States and finally in the area.''
Kissinger said that, war or no war, the US faces major risks in keeping hundreds of thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia for an extended period. They could become a hostage of developments beyond the control of the US, he warned. ``My gut feeling,'' Kissinger said, ``is that the presence of such a large American force in a theocratic society like Saudi Arabia is in the long term incompatible with its domestic stability.''