Holes in the Bush message


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's televised address t Congress was an entirely predictable and understandable attempt to firm up the popular consensus behind his policy in the Persian Gulf that is responsible for his gaudy standing in the polls. But the president did not -- and probably could not -- deal candidly with the questions that will determine whether and for how long that consensus exists.

The most compelling aspect of the speech was the effort the president made to prepare Americans for the possibility of the use of military force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. "Iraq will not be permitted to annex Kuwait," he declared. "That's not a threat or a boast. That's just the way it's going to be."

But the hard truth -- and one of which politicians in both parties are well aware -- is that any military operation involving significant U.S. casualties will make it far more difficult to maintain public support for the president's policy in the Persian Gulf. The reaction against young Americans being brought home in body bags has been intense even in cases in which the goal was ostensibly far more lofty than preserving the flow of oil or saving the skin of Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti royalty.

Bush also seemed to be trying to prepare Americans for the other most obvious possibility in the gulf, a prolonged stalemate. "I cannot predict just how long it will take to convince Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Sanctions will take time to have their full intended effect. We will continue to review all options with our allies. But let it be clear: We will not let this aggression stand." The message was clearly that the United States is there for however long it may take.

Again, however, Bush is facing a harsh political reality. The experience of the last generation of political leaders has shown that the attention span of Americans has been growing shorter with every passing administration, so it is reasonable to wonder how long the voters will tolerate a stalemate that involves huge numbers of military personnel and corresponding costs. The answer there is likely to depend at least in part on the condition of the economy -- and whether a foreign policy stalemate in the Middle East is seen as responsible for hard times at home.

Nor could the president deal candidly with the most politically vexing aspect of the whole Persian Gulf affair -- the decision by Saddam Hussein to seize hundreds, perhaps thousands, of westerners and hold them as hostages. Bush's response was conventional. "Of course, our hearts go out to the hostages and their families," he said, "but our policy cannot change and it will not change. America and the world will not be blackmailed."

But the reality here, as Bush should know from the Iran-contra affair, is that no president can be immune to the pressures that develop from American citizens being held as captives. Unless the situation in the gulf is resolved shortly, we can be assured that the television networks and newspapers will make the story of the Western hostages -- how many, who they are, how their families are enduring -- a very personal one with obvious political implications.

The fundamental problem in Bush's attempt to solidify for the long haul the support he now enjoys from the public is the same one he has confronted since the decision was made to send troops to Saudi Arabia early last month. When all is said and done, the rationale for the policy is the need to protect the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. We may profess to be morally outraged by the spectacle of Iraq's simply taking over tiny Kuwait without even a fig leaf of justification. But it is impossible to believe that the United States would have made such a commitment absent the oil.

The president does have some high cards to play in making his case. One of them clearly is the decisiveness he showed in acting promptly and aggressively against a perceived and probably very real threat to Saudi Arabia. Another is the support, however grudging in some cases, his policy has enlisted from most of the rest of the world. No one is going to accuse George Bush of harebrained adventuring. He is even getting someone ** else to pay some of the bills.

But in the television age, public opinion can be extremely volatile. And that means the president will be called upon again and again to define the rationale for his policies as the crisis unfolds -- or simply drags on.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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