After Hussein? Victory Takes the Country Beyond the Self-Doubt of the Vietnam Syndrome WAR IN THE GULF BY JOSEPH R. L. STERNE


President Bush has at last rid the country of its Vietnam syndrome, of the inferiority complex that for two decades caused many Americans to doubt their government and even themselves.

The United States now knows that its armed forces can shoot straight and its national security is in good hands. With its self-confidence restored, it need no longer approach its world role apologetically or to feel it cannot compete effectively in international commerce.

This frame of mind has its dangers. If the country swaggers too much or gets an exaggerated idea of its manifest destiny, it can get carried away in imposing what Mr. Bush calls the "new world order." The adrenalin of the moment needs to be mixed with a little humility and realism.

A major question is whether Mr. Bush has enough self-discipline and restraint to build the peace as adroitly as he ran the war. Even in his superb management of the gulf struggle, the president exhibited some of the jittery excesses that once caused the country to wonder about him. His vows to kick Saddam Hussein's backside and to let the Middle East know that "what we say goes" were hardly laudable. Yet at almost every moment of the crisis, when decisions affecting the lives of millions had to be made, Mr. Bush measured up.

Those Americans who disagreed with his decision to go to war to liberate Kuwait can scarcely deny that the president achieved his objectives. He put together an anti-Iraq coalition that held together and prevailed. He fulfilled his promise to 530,000 Americans in uniform that they would be protected with all the military might the Pentagon could muster. He knew when to start the war, and when and where to stop it. Most important, he pledged that the gulf crisis would not be allowed to become "another Vietnam," and it did not.

Some of this success may have been due to the nature of the terrain, the isolation of the enemy and the inane deployment and utilization of Iraqi forces. But mainly it was the result of selecting superior military officers and giving them the means to conduct the kind of war they wanted to fight.

The tortured incrementalism of Robert McNamara gave way to Dick Cheney's determination for quick victory. The target-selection proclivities of Lyndon Johnson were replaced by George Bush's non-interference. Even on the home front, the strategic case for the gulf war was so much more compelling than the entanglement in Vietnam that domestic protest remained comparatively light.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces and arbiter of foreign policy, a president confronts his most imposing constitutional mandate. The Founding Fathers developed this priority on the basis of having watched the generalship of Washington and the diplomatic derring-do of Franklin and Jefferson.

National security, in its broadest definition, had to be a function of the executive branch. Congress could "declare" war but not "make" war. Congress could raise the money for the armed forces but not command them. Congress could advise and consent on foreign policy but not conduct it.

The Iraqi conflict proved once again the wisdom of this arrangement. Though Mr. Bush at first resisted Capitol Hill demands that there be an up-or-down vote on the functional equivalent of a declaration of war, he finally relented and probably came to believe that the force resolution united the country.

Congressional critics grew quiet as the air war began and, by the end, some were even demanding Saddam Hussein's head. They had rendered the kind of deliberated decision that had been denied the legislative branch during Vietnam, the Tonkin Gulf resolution notwithstanding.

Executive-legislative tension over war and foreign-policy powers will always be healthily present, but now that the humiliation of Vietnam is over Congress may be able to address the problem more rationally than it did with the 1973 War Powers Resolution. This would not be the least of Mr. Bush's achievements.

The country does not need the mushy consensualism of bipartisanship carried to ridiculous extremes. But it does need to recapture the sense of mission it had after World War II (the last "good war" and the war that shaped George Bush's hatred of appeasement and insistence on clear-cut victory).

After destroying Hitler, a tyrant Mr. Bush has often compared to Saddam Hussein, the United States used enormous resources to rebuild Western Europe and preserve democracy west of the Elbe. This time, the oil-rich nations of the Middle East will have to finance their own recovery. But if they are to do so in stability, they will need the American security support that undoubtedly will be there if Mr. Bush has his way. He is not only a man of World War II but of the Cold War -- two struggles that ended in democracy's triumph.

While the president now stands tall in the opinion polls, all too soon he will have to turn some of his attention away from war overseas to recession, poverty and illiteracy at home. The Constitution may be less precise about a president's domestic responsibilities than about his duties as commander in chief. But Lincoln, Wilson and FDR, among others, expanded the federal role through legislation and executive fiat to the point where its impact on the national well-being is enormous.

Before he seeks a second term next year, Mr. Bush will have to deal with recession and with a widespread notion that he is somewhat detached and disconnected from the nation's internal problems. If he addresses this flaw on his presidency, he may find that in "kicking the Vietnam syndrome, once and for all," he has gained a great asset in tackling domestic issues.

Post-Vietnam doldrums have coincided with a decline in America's standing in the world marketplace, deterioration in the inner cities, shortcomings in education, and increasing worries about drugs, crime and pollution. If the nation now thinks better about itself, it may at last set about the business of improving the quality of life within its borders.

Could this be the real peace dividend the country has yearned for so long? What is needed (Democrats take note) is presidential leadership on the home front that is as effective as Mr. Bush's leadership on the war front.

Joseph R. L. Sterne is editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

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