Washington--THE GRIM body count calculus is clearly a critical element of President Bush's decision on whether and when to order a ground offensive in the Persian Gulf war. But it also underlines a basic weakness in the president's position -- the fact that the Iraqis do not, and have never, posed a direct threat to the United States.
From the outset the White House has understood, first, that popular support for President Bush's conduct of the war was essential to its success and, second, that this support might be threatened if there were heavy American casualties. Opinion surveys made before the war started showed, for example, that support for military action dropped below 50 percent once it was postulated that such action might take 5,000 lives.
The situation has changed significantly since the fighting began, however. Saddam Hussein has demonized himself in a way that has enraged Americans and nourished their most militant instincts. Beyond that, the early success of the war seems to have heightened the fervor for seeing it to the end -- meaning not only the liberation of Kuwait but the destruction of Saddam. Unsurprisingly, polls now show more support for the war even if it is prolonged and involves significant U.S. casualties.
But anyone who has followed American politics very closely knows that public opinion is volatile and that the definition of success or failure -- or even what constitutes the national interest -- can change over time.
To a large degree, comparisons between the war in the gulf and the war in Vietnam don't stand up to close scrutiny. But there are lessons that can be drawn from Vietnam that are valuable for the president in considering his options now.
In the end, what destroyed the consensus behind the war in Vietnam was the growing acceptance of the argument that the United States was not directly threatened by the possibility of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia -- or, if it were, not to a degree that justified the loss of American lives. The domino theory was no longer the guiding principle of U.S. policy.
Thus, the danger for Bush in heavy casualties from a ground war is that Americans will return to the basic questions about the Persian Gulf that are being forgotten these days in the anger at Saddam and the exultation over military successes. And the most basic question is what is the U.S. stake in the whole enterprise?
It may be an oversimplification, as the administration has insisted all along, to say that the war was simply about oil. But it is equally clear that the move to protect supplies in Saudi Arabia was the immediate imperative in the first deployment of U.S. forces. What we know now is that the industrialized world can get along without Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil. So one question is whether reclaiming those Kuwaiti supplies is worth American lives.
President Bush's basic case has been that this is a war of principle required to defeat an aggressor and establish a "new world order" in which many nations acting together will deter large powers from imposing themselves on small states. But it is far from certain that similar aggression elsewhere would evoke the kind of response that Saddam Hussein has brought down on himself. So another question arises: What cost will Americans be willing to pay for this idea?
The operative question, however, is whether Iraq ever posed a direct threat, military or economic, that required the kind of response Bush ordered when he transformed the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia from defensive to offensive. Is Saddam, as Bush put it, another Hitler or another madman with unsettling but essentially regional ambitions? So the key question, bluntly put, is this one: Has Iraq ever represented a threat to the United States comparable to the threat of World War II -- one worth thousands of American lives?
At the moment, it is clear that the vast majority of Americans are gung-ho in their support for the policy President Bush has devised and for the way he has carried it forward. But Americans also have been getting the best of both worlds -- report after report of military successes achieved with only minuscule casualties. Scud missiles have landed in Israel but not in Baltimore or Miami or St. Louis.
A ground offensive can be a jolting experience -- a reminder that wars cannot be won without human costs. President Bush must understand that when that reality sinks in, he will have to answer the most basic questions.