Critical Decisions for Bush, Gorbachev

THE leaders of the world's two major powers are facing decisions within the next few days that will make or break their presidencies. President Bush must decide whether, and when, to launch a ground attack against Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait.

President Gorbachev must decide whether to crush Lithuania's drive for independence by force.

Both decisions are militarily straightforward.

If the United States chooses to bring enough force to bear, there is not much doubt that it can ultimately be successful in freeing Kuwait.

Similarly, the Soviet Union has the military means to subdue, and maintain its grip upon, Lithuania.

But there the similarity ends.

In the case of Kuwait, the United States and its allies would be ousting Iraqis who have illegally, and in defiance of international law and standards of behavior, occupied a neighboring country.

In the case of Lithuania, the Soviets would be subduing the rightful residents of the territory and extending their grip on a country which they have incorporated by fiat.

In the case of Kuwait, the United States and its allies would be backed by moral justification. There is a United Nations resolution which supports the use of force. While there are mutterings about the extent of the air war against Iraq, ousting the Iraqis from Kuwait is an action that cannot reasonably incur international disapproval.

In the case of Lithuania, the use of Soviet force is without moral justification and would be seen thus by much of the international community.

Thus in each case, the purely military prospects are clearcut. In the case of Kuwait there is moral justification for such military action. In the case of Lithuania there is not.

Once the presidents have weighed the military and moral factors involved, we come to the crux of the decision they have to make. For each of them, the overriding factor must be the internal political consequences of whatever they decide.

While American casualties have remained relatively low, the American voter has remained generally supportive of Mr.Bush's pursuit of the Gulf war. If the casualties become heavy, there will be erosion of that support. If the ultimate public view is that the outcome of the Gulf war was not worth the cost in human life, Bush will be a one-term president.

For this reason, Bush must weigh the consequences of bringing the war to a conclusion with (a) no ground offensive, (b) a limited ground offensive, (c) an all-out ground offensive.

While the choice for Bush is an awesome one, the decision confronting Mr. Gorbachev in Lithuania is much more complex. The Lithuanians have just voted by a factor of nine to one in favor of independence. In last weekend's referendum they left little doubt about their desire to be free of Moscow's rule.

Gorbachev may dismiss it in legalistic terms, but he cannot dispute the expression of their desire. Nor, this time around, can he permit the use of Soviet force to break the Lithuanians' will, and afterwards disclaim advance knowledge of it. This time, the decision is his.

On Kuwait, Bush can make the right decision and survive politically. In Lithuania, Gorbachev is facing what looks like a no-win situation.

If the Soviet president cracks down on the Lithuanians, he will placate his political right wing, and the military and the KGB on which he has become increasingly reliant as his problems have mounted. But then Gorbachev will incur the indignation of the world and heighten the opposition of the reformist movement at home.

If he does not crack down, and lets Lithuania go the independent way of Eastern Europe, he will soon lose Estonia and Latvia, and encourage other states within the Soviet Union to secede. That will incur the wrath of the military and increase the likelihood of Gorbachev's ouster.

These pending decisions will not only decide the political fortunes of two major world leaders, but do much to shape the next, critical chapter in the history of the world.

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