PRESIDENT BUSH PLACES A HEROIC GLOSS ON HIS BOLD AND RISKY MIDEAST GAMBLE
THE WINDS OF WAR
PRESIDENT BUSH PLACES A HEROIC GLOSS ON HIS BOLD AND RISKY MIDEAST GAMBLE
The rhetoric sounded the drum rolls of a distant and simpler time. As President George Bush announced the deployment of 50,000 American troops to Saudi Arabia last week, he reached back half a century to draw on the language of historical reassurance. “Blitzkrieg.” “Appeasement.” His buzz words were careful, never directly comparing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Aug. 2 takeover of Kuwait to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Nazi Germany’s neighbors at the outset of the Second World War. But, in his third address to the nation in less than two years, Bush’s message was clear.
By invoking the memories of America’s Second World War role as a global liberator, he sought, in part, to cloak his intervention in a far-off regional oil conflict with a heroic and universal gloss. But, in doing so, he was also laying the ideological groundwork to muster long-term support for the boldest, and riskiest, foreign-policy gamble of his or any other recent presidency—a military exercise that could ultimately misfire disastrously, both at home and in the tense Middle East (page 24).
Indeed, as thousands of crack U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division poured into Saudi Arabia for what the Pentagon called Operation Desert Shield, the largest American military buildup since the Vietnam War, it soon became clear that Bush’s invoca-
tion of the Allied battle against Hitler was partly a public relations weapon to banish other, more recent, and more troubling, memories. Chief among them: the country’s disastrous and divisive foray into the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Last week, nowhere were those reminders more evident than on Capitol Hill. After displaying almost unprecedented solidarity with Bush, many congressmen also made it clear that there were limits on their enthusiasm for a protracted military entanglement that might reawaken the fading Vietnam nightmare: the fear of another generation of U.S. soldiers haplessly caught in a political quagmire on another steamy and hostile foreign shore. As Senate foreign relations committee chairman Claiborne Pell, a Rhode Island Democrat, pointed out, his constituents wanted to “see some action, but people don’t want to see a full-scale conflagration.” Agreed California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston: “I hope we won’t be the Lone
Ranger the way we were in Vietnam.”
Still, the conflict showed no sign of becoming less explosive last week as Bush wielded the Oval Office telephone in his trademark foreignpolicy style, referred to by The Wall Street Journal as “Dialing for Diplomacy.” By week’s end, what Bush described as his “unparalleled international consultation” had yielded him an Arab League military contingent to reinforce U.S. peacekeeping efforts in the Gulf and the two most overwhelmingly supportive votes in Washington’s recent embattled history with the United Nations. The 15-member Security Council not only unanimously declared Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait “null and void.” It also offered the novel spectacle of the post -glasnost Soviet Union supporting Washington in condemning the very Iraqi strongman whom it had so lavishly armed during his eight-year war with Iran.
But, despite that portent of a newly reordered superpower relationship, the Kuwaiti
crisis revived reminders of a more traditional American dilemma. Last month, as the leaders of the industrialized West met for their annual economic summit in Houston, analysts discussed America’s waning influence in a rapidly realigning world of new power blocs. But that identity crisis was swiftly overshadowed by Washington’s leap into its familiar—but controversial—role as global policeman. Indeed, conservative commentator Ben Wattenberg took perverse comfort in that fact. Wrote Wattenberg in The Washington Times:. “Let’s thank Mr. Hussein for ending that stuff about America not being No. 1. Is this worldwide crisis going to be solved by energetic Japanese or unified Germans?”
At home, after the overwhelming initial public support for Bush, pollsters began discovering ominous undercurrents of unease. A Washington Post-ABC TV poll showed that 74 per cent of respondents backed the U.S. military intervention. But the Post went on to report an underlying reaction: “a mix of skepticism, frustration, confusion and outright fear.” Among those surveyed, 60 per cent said that they believed that the confrontation would lead to a U.S.-Iraqi war, and 86 per cent voiced a conviction that it would harm the already-contracting U.S. economy. As predictions of another crippling economic recession took on new tones of
Gone were signs of the unalloyed self-congratulations that surfaced when President Ronald Reagan overwhelmed a handful of Marxists on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada with 7,000 U.S. shock troops seven years ago—or when Bush invaded Panama last December to overthrow Manuel Noriega. One reason was clearly that, this time, Bush was confronting an opponent of formidable proportions. Not only does Hussein have the largest force in the Middle East, a million-man army honed to deadly efficiency by its war with Iran, but he also commands one of the world’s most dreaded arsenals and has no moral compunctions about using his stockpile of chemical weapons.
Line: That very strength promised no easy exits for Bush from the Middle East. And for many Americans, it raised the spectre of America’s humiliating impotence against fist-shaking Iranian intransigence during the twin energy and hostage crises of 1979. Those events had forced the country into a stark recognition of its own economic and military vulnerability—and led to President Jimmy Carter’s ignominious defeat a year later. And last week, Bush’s aides acknowledged the fact that Carter’s perceived mistakes had inspired much of the President’s
aggressive decision to challenge Hussein with a major flexing of U.S. military muscle and with what he called “a line drawn in the sand.”
Still, for the second time in slightly more than a decade, the United States found itself caught in the complex and treacherous crosscurrents of the Persian Gulf—a region that proved the undoing of Carter and crippled Reagan’s presidency, and one where not all factions condemned Hussein (page 27). And for the second time as well, Washington had found itself caught by surprise—not because of the failure of its intelligence, but because its President had ignored CIA warnings in favor of his personal diplomatic style. Indeed, the weaknesses of Bush’s Dialing for Diplomacy were underlined by his acknowledgment that he had relied on Arab reassurances from Hussein that Hussein would not invade Kuwait.
But now, in the wake of his swift and stunning reaction, Bush faces his most daunting challenge. As one Washington observer pointed out, the true test of a president is not how he reacts to a crisis but how he prevents one from occurring. And over the coming weeks, Bush must prove that, in calling forth the metaphors of the last world war, his rhetoric does not in fact prove prophetic.
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