REPUBLICAN and Democratic leaders have been united since the beginning of the Gulf crisis in insisting that Iraq's annexation of Kuwait must not be allowed to stand and, more generally, that its aggression not be seen to have been rewarded in any way. They are united as well in their hopes that the war will be short and decisive. At the same time, however, last Saturday's congressional votes indicate just how sharply the two parties have differed on other elements of Gulf policy.
Congress had before it competing resolutions that posed a fundamental choice: between authorizing the president ``to use United States Armed Forces pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 ...,'' a de facto declaration of war; and insisting - as did both the Mitchell-Nunn Senate resolution and the Hamilton-Gephardt House resolution - that ``the Congress believes the continued application of international sanctions and diplomatic efforts to pressure Iraq to leave Kuwait is the wisest course at this time and should be sustained ....''
The choice between the two approaches involved important matters of principle, not just of tactics, and on these principles the division was essentially on party lines. Ninety-eight percent of the 211 GOP members of the two houses voted for the use of force resolution, while almost 70 percent of the 323 Democrats voted against it.
If the Democrats' southern wing is excluded, the partisan split is even more striking. Only 16 percent of the 229 Democrats from states outside the 11 that once formed the Confederacy endorsed the use of force.
The use of force resolution was an endorsement of policies doggedly pursued by a Republican president, and normal political competition couldn't be entirely set aside. Congressional Republicans were called upon to back their party's leader, and Democrats to back an alternative fashioned by their leadership. Still, there's no reason to doubt that members on both sides cast their votes in accordance with their conscience.
On the Democratic side, in fact, following principle put legislators at odds with majority opinion. At no point since the Gulf crisis broke on Aug. 2 were Americans in any sense desirous of war. But from the beginning a large majority saw important objectives and national interests at stake, justifying a strong US response.
This accounts for the consistently high support the public has given the president for his vigorous resistance to the Iraqi invasion.
In an Aug. 20 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, 75 percent said they approved ``the way George Bush is handling the situation caused by Iraq's invasion ...,'' while just 21 percent declared themselves opposed.
Five months later, on Jan. 13, the same survey organization found the proportions little changed: 68 percent endorsed Bush's handling of the crisis, 27 percent disapproved of it.
By putting distance between their approach and his, most congressional Democrats have taken on the president in an area where he has clear public backing. The Jan. 13 ABC/Post survey also found about three-fourths of respondents favored the position taken by the majority in Congress in enacting the use of force resolution.
Asked in a Connecticut poll of Jan. 12-14 whether the Democrats have been too supportive of administration policies in the Gulf, not supportive enough, or have taken ``about the right stand,'' a majority (55 percent) said the Democratic stand was appropriate, but a substantial minority (39 percent) thought the party hadn't been supportive enough.
The principled division over Gulf policy between leaders and activists of the two parties follows lines evident in most of the foreign affairs disputes since Vietnam, including the often-bitter partisan argument over Central America during the Reagan years. Republicans have been far readier to project US military power than have Democrats.
Just why this is so remains something of a mystery. During the three decades or so of the New Deal era, from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson, it was the Democrats - including surely the party's liberal wing - who were the more inclined to an activist, interventionist foreign policy in defense of national interests and ``a new world order.''
That the Vietnam war years mark the boundary of this great flip-flop is clear enough, but it's probably a mistake to attribute the partisan reversal to the war itself. In any case, as the division over the Gulf crisis again reminds us, the meaning of liberalism and conservatism in foreign policy has been drastically redefined.