Bush's troubles in explaining his gulf policy


Washington-- Stephen Green, a playwright and insurance salesman from Baltimore, raised the question last week of why President Bush had chosen Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to go to war in the Persian Gulf.

He was referring to the compromise date of Jan. 15 that the United Nations Security Council inserted in a resolution adopted Thursday that authorizes the use of military force if Iraq has not withdrawn from Kuwait by that time.

"Why couldn't they have chosen the 14th or the 16th?" he said, suggesting that Mr. Bush might have wanted to punish the congressional Black Caucus for filing a lawsuit against him in an attempt to block a military strike against Iraq.

While Mr. Green is probably correct that no one from the Bush administration objected to the date on the grounds that it commemorates a national hero who dedicated his life to non-violent change, his reaction illustrates in part why the president is having so much trouble making his case for U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf.

People tend to filter information through their own particular frame of reference. They hear what they want to hear. Most don't want to hear a good reason to go to war.

As war looms closer and the stakes get higher, the case gets even tougher to make. It took a direct attack by Japan to prod Congress into authorizing U.S. involvement in World War II, which has been described as the last occasion when the nation reached a consensus on war. The threat to the United States posed by Iraq is much less clear.

On Friday, Mr. Bush seemed to complicate matters still further by announcing he was opening direct talks with Bagdad at the same time he was preparing for them to fail.

Each time the president has adjusted his message to fit new circumstances or a different audience during the four months since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he has inspired more criticism and confusion.

By last week, Mr. Bush's rallying cry for leading the nation into battle against Iraq was being unkindly compared to the "theme-of-the-day" sound bites of his presidential campaign.

"In one moment, the troops were sent to defend Saudi Arabia," recited Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas. "In another, it was to assure the return of Kuwait to its monarchs. Later, it became a holy mission to protect oil supplies. At other times, it was the hostages.

"And now the administration tells us that it is an effort to destroy the possibility that Iraq, at some time in the future, might have nuclear capability," he continued. "Sandwiched in between these shifting goals is Secretary of State James Baker's bland announcement that the whole effort was simply about 'jobs.' "

Omitted from the congressman's list were administration calls for speedy action because:

* Kuwait is being so swiftly dismantled there may soon be nothing left.

* The Iraqis may soon be able, Pentagon officials hinted, to put their poison gas bombs on missiles.

* U.S. casualties may be higher if Saddam Hussein is given more time to build up his defenses.

* "The fledging democracies in Eastern Europe are being severely damaged by the economic effects of Saddan' actions," Mr. Bush said Friday in his latest contributioin to the list.

"I kind of thought his explanation was adequate to begin with," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "But it worries me to see them grasping at straws like this. It seems as though they haven't convinced themselves why we should go in."

The White House insists President Bush's original rationale for action has never changed. It is reflected in the four principles adopted by the United Nations Security Council, and he repeats some version of it in every speech.

"We are here to guarantee that freedom is protected and tha Iraq's aggression will not be rewarded," Mr. Bush told U.S. troops in the Saudi desert on Thanksgiving Day. "We must send a signal to any would-be Saddam Hussein that the world will not tolerate tyrants who violate every standard of civilized behavior -- invading, bullying and swallowing whole a peaceful neighbor."

The reason why Mr. Bush says Americans, in particular, should take on this fight is that the United States depends so heavily on the oil supplies that could potentially fall under Iraq's control.

"Clearly, our national security's at stake here in the gulf, not just from the threat of force, but from the potential economic blackmail of a gulf dominated by a power-hungry Iraq," the president told the troops.

During the four months since Iraqi forces invaded and conquered Kuwait, Mr. Bush has expanded and elaborated on these themes many times.

Mr. Hussein's refusal to release the thousands of American and foreign citizens trapped in Iraq and Kuwait inspired new presidential outrage. Tales of the brutal ways in which Iraqi soldiers are torturing old men, women and babies in Kuwait enhanced the parallels between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler.

As the crisis focused attention on Iraq's ability and willingness to use poison gas, administration officials began privately saying that Mr. Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait would not be enough. In order to achieve regional stability, they said, some means would have to be found to control these weapons and perhaps disarm Iraq's million-man army.

Once it was clear the economic sanctions alone would not quickly bring Iraq to its knees, Mr. Bush began trying to make Mr. Hussein believe he faced an imminent threat of military attack. The forces sent to defend Saudi Arabia were ordered beefed up to an offensive strength. International lobbying to win the U.N. authorization of force began.

But as the president sounded more and more bellicose, the anti-war sentiment at home began to rise. Critics warned that he was moving too fast, that he hadn't given the economic sanctions enough of a chance.

So, Mr. Bush, who needed to show Iraq he was resolute and show Congress he was reasonable, started alternating his message. Some days he'd sound warlike, some days he'd sound more patient.

By Friday he had combined the message by announcing that he would open direct talks with Saddam Hussein as a last ditch effort while at the same time preparing to hit Iraq with all the force necessary for a quick, decisive victory if those talks fail.

Meanwhile, White House speech writers, as well as Vice President Quayle, have been trying out new ways, to spell out the dangers of waiting too long to act.

"There are different ways of presenting the same basic issues," one administration official explained. "Congress said, 'We want to hear more about your rationale,' so the president kept trying to explain it."

When he cited the nuclear threat posed by Iraq, however, Mr. Bush apparently went too far.

Some of the nation's top military experts said he exaggerated the danger. Critics such as Representative Gonzalez interpreted his comments to mean the United States would launch a military offensive specifically for the purpose of knocking out Mr. Hussein's nuclear capability.

Administration officials acknowledge the issue was mishandled.

"I don't think I would have put it quite the way the president did," a Pentagon official explained. "The issue here really relates to the initial goal of not letting Hussein take control of oil supplies because it would provide him a new source of money to spend on developing nuclear weapons."

John Wheeler, a Vietnam War veteran who heads an educational group on the Vietnam era, blamed much of the president's message problems on the difficulty of calling a country to war.

"This is the phony war period, an unreal time like the late 1930s when U.S. officials had to dream up ploys like lend-lease because there was so much anti-war sentiment," he told the House Banking Committee last week. "In fact, with 49 Americans already killed in accidents over there, I think you have to say the war has already started."

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