IN DECLARING a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf war on the night after the liberation of Kuwait, President Bush has capped an awesome display of American force with a political move that undercuts his remaining critics as effectively as the Bush-built coalition defeated Iraq in the field.
Once it was clear that the coalition military forces were routing the Iraqis, Bush's major political challenge came from those who saw in his unyielding posture and continued demonizing of Saddam Hussein a determination to destroy the Iraqi war machine completely and bring about the ouster of the Iraqi strongman.
Such objectives, these critics said, went beyond the 12 United Nations resolutions calling for Iraq forces to get out of Kuwait, restoration of the Kuwaiti government and establishment of peace and security in the region. At the cost of American lives lost in a continued ground war, they said, Bush was embarked on total humiliation of Saddam.
The continued military pounding, the critics went on, also was certain to feed anti-American sentiment in much of the Arab world and enable the Soviet Union, in pursuing its own efforts for a cease-fire, to paint itself as the white hat in the equation.
Bush's swift decision to declare a cease fire under rigid conditions immediately silenced these criticisms and cut the legs out from under Moscow's attempts to be the humanitarian peacemaker. With achievement of a lightning military victory and a subsequent demonstration of compassion, the president has left little grounds for those who disagreed with his war policy to peck at it successfully. As for getting rid of Saddam, Bush seems to be counting on the emphatic nature of his defeat to render him impotent in the postwar Middle East and perhaps bring him down politically as well.
At home, the rapid conclusion of the war may make it difficult for the Democrats to pose with any effectiveness the postwar political question that they had already planned to raise -- what kind of America the troops would be coming home to. By asking this question, the Democrats hoped to refocus public attention on domestic affairs, which they see as woefully neglected by a president preoccupied with foreign policy.
But the prospect that most American troops should be coming home so soon after the war started, and with so relatively few casualties, isn't likely to trigger any sustained demand for more and better social programs of the sort the raising of that question suggests. Instead, the Democrats will be left with trying to bring the electorate down from the unprecedented high generated by Bush's handling of the gulf war -- and now his cool decision to end it in a way that further undercuts his critics.
The Democrats' task is also complicated by the way in which all their prospective 1992 presidential aspirants have been obliged to take cover as a result of Bush's foreign-policy coup. Until his flip-flop on his no-new-taxes pledge last year, many Democrats had already given up hopes of beating him in 1992, but that fiasco rekindled them for a time. Now Bush looks even more unbeatable, with only the cloud of a continued or worsening recession hanging over his political invulnerability.
A year from now, if the aftermath of the gulf war is not as rosy as its conduct has been, and if the economy does worsen, the president may not be the 800-pound political gorilla he appears to be today. But just as the coalition forces gave Saddam Hussein no out on the battlefield, Bush has left critical Democrats little latitude to come after him by prosecuting the war with such swiftness and then closing it down the same way.
In one sense, Bush's insistence that the collective action he mobilized in the gulf was the kickoff of a "new world order" required that he get in and out quickly, to demonstrate that its objective really was peacekeeping. The achieving of the stated goals at that dizzying pace should give credibility to any future collective stand against a transgressor of the peace -- provided, that is, that such a transgressor is not a major world power.
For all the success of the Bush-led opposition to Saddam Hussein, it should be remembered that it came at the expense of an overmatched if not overmanned adversary. That fact, however, has not diminished in the least the euphoria generated by the military success -- nor the glow from the political halo that now circles the brow of George Bush, six-week war president.