WORLD

Cocking the gun

Bush may be rallying Americans for a long haul

August 27 1990
WORLD

Cocking the gun

Bush may be rallying Americans for a long haul

August 27 1990

Cocking the gun

Bush may be rallying Americans for a long haul

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

Beyond Ocean Avenue, the winding coastal road that snakes past President George Bush’s summer compound on the outskirts of Kennebunkport, Me., the sea stretched placid and glassy. The sky, unmarred by clouds, was picture-postcard blue. But even in the genteel New England resort town, 40 km south of Portland, that has become host to the summer White House, concern about the gathering winds of war in the Middle East intruded like unseen storm clouds.

As tensions mushroomed in the Persian Gulf, and helicopters ferried Jordan’s King Hussein and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to and from Bush’s home on the rocky promontory of Walker’s Point, the blackboard outside Bartley’s Dockside restaurant carried a blustery message: “Mr. President, you gave it your best. Your Kennebunkport friends support you. Do what you must.” Inside, one employee insisted that the sign meant that Bush ought to “blow the Iraqis right out of the water.” But owner Dorothy Bartley sharply corrected him in a worried tone that

reflected mounting anxiety across the nation. “Oh, golly, it’s scary,” she said. “I think everybody’s a little on the edge. We’re all praying something can be done peacefully, but when you see all these boys going over, it reminds you of World War II.”

As the Pentagon announced that it was dispatching 45,000 marines to the Gulf, increasing American troop levels to 100,000 within a few weeks, some analysts said that, with the staggering escalation of firepower, Bush seemed to be setting the country on a one-way collision course from which his administration no longer could—or wanted to— retreat. Said William Quandt, senior Middle East analyst for Washington’s Brookings Institution: “I’m beginning to feel, day by day, very uneasy. The more troops we commit out there, and the higher the costs are, the stronger the feeling seems to be: if we’ve got all this, we better use it.” Added retired admiral Eugene Carroll, deputy director of Washington’s independent Center for Defense Information: “There’s the very grave danger that we’re

creating a situation we can’t get out of in order to justify the attack we may be planning.”

That prospect may be complicated by the Iraqis’ announcement late last week that they plan to detain foreigners until the crisis is over. But, increasingly, White House officials have been talking not of their defensive! posture in protecting Saudi Arabia and its oilfields from attack, but of overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, apparently by military force.

And as the troop buildup took on a momentum of its own, Carroll speculated that administration officials maÿ be stacking the deck in favor of a deliberately provoked military strike. “You build up the tension and the hate and the fear factors, and you’re conditioning the American public that it may be necessary to go to war,” he said. “With more and more peopl^ pushing for a quick solution, I fear Bush is working towards cocking the gun and firing it.”

In fact, Bush chose the terrace of the Pentagon last week for his strongest verbal assault on the Iraqi dictao tor. The speech was carefully calculatx ed to rally U.S. forces for what1 appeared to be shaping up as a protracted engagement, one that will have cost $1.4 billion by the end of next month. But his rhetoric was also aimed at shoring up U.S. public opinion as he contemplated the potentially controversial call-up of 80,000 reservists. In fact, those considerations led Quandt to speculate that some White House strategists may now prefer a quick military strike tcT waiting out Saddam Hussein in the Gulf. But should there be American casualties, he cautioned, the polls would quickly rebound against Bush. Said Quandt: “If this goes on, month after month, domestic support here will erode.”

Across the United States, a majority ofi people continued to support Bush, a president whose defining experience was his service as a Second World War fighter pilot. And as the whir of military helicopters punctuated the Kennebunkport calm last week, local residents crowded the wild-flower-fringed trail bordering Walker’s Point to offer their moral support* for Bush’s increasingly controversial show of strength. “The Arabs have never paid attention to anybody unless you brought in a big gun,” said Gordon Peterson, a 37-year-old disabled pesticide worker from nearby Portland. “Look at Jimmy Carter—nobody paid any attention to him when he threatened or cried.

In fact, concern about repeating Carter’s mistakes during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis had even led Bush to persist with his previously planned, 25-day vacation in the midst of the crisis. His aides confided that they had not wanted him to resemble the former Democratic president, who had seemed a prisoner of the White House during that time. But even before the Iraqis’ announcement about detaining for-

eigners, some analysts had predicted that Bush’s calculated insults could provoke Saddam Hussein into turning the estimated 3,100 Americans still detained in Kuwait and Iraq into outright hostages—about 60 times the number that crippled Carter’s presidency.

The first cracks in U.S. support revealed opposition to Bush’s military action from an unexpected quarter: the Republican right. With the Soviet Union now apparently removed from the Middle East equation, conservative Washington Times columnist Mona Charen pointed out that “the right is undergoing á fundamental re-evaluation of America’s mission.” Those sentiments could help reshape part of the electoral map in November’s congressional elections. So, too, could the prospect of gasoline-pump lineups and rising home-heating bills if the Gulf conflict plunges the nation into another energy crisis as winter temperatures drop.

But last week, as prices continued to rise, many of those in the oil industry in Texas, Bush’s adoptive home state and strongest constituency, found it difficult to mask their elation over a situation that had transformed their previously bleak economic prospects. Many reactivated long-closed smaller wells. And as University of North Texas researchers estimated that increased crude Ibices would create 64,000 new jobs over the next year, one cartoonist depicted an oil company board nominating Saddam Hussein as the state’s “mvd—Most Valuable Despot.”

Some oilmen also seized on the Gulf crisis as an opportunity to knock heightened environmental awareness off the national agenda. In California, the Chevron Corp. launched a public relations drive to reactivate its offshore wells, prevented from ôperating two years ago because of concern about environmental damage. And according to U.S. interior department officials, Bush hopes to push for oil drilling in Alaska’s environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that Canada has consistently opposed. Said Michael Canes, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute in

Washington: “Prior to this happening, the environmental lobby was dominating every issue for the past year. Now, people appreciate that there are costs to forgoing exploration.”

Still, the greatest test of Bush’s military buildup will be its drain on the already overdrawn U.S. economy. Last week, he used a White House budget meeting to launch a stinging attack on the Democrats in Congress,

paving the way for freeing his requested $350-billion defence budget from a projected $21 billion in cuts by the Senate. And some Pentagon planners have confided their veiled gratitude to Saddam Hussein for saving them from potential congressional cutbacks. Said one, who insisted on remaining anonymous: “You’ve got to give the devil his due. This sure does demonstrate why we need the military capability.”

But, in fact, many analysts point out that Operation Desert Shield has most vividly exposed the futility of Ronald Reagan’s trillion-dollar military buildup over the past decade. After having been so long obsessed by the prospect of fighting the Soviet Union in Europe, the Pentagon has suddenly found itself ill equipped to fight in or move troops to a Third World

desert front. Indeed, when 3 hostilities first threatened £ two weeks ago, there was not

a single U.S. minesweeper in the Persian Gulf, and the air force was so short of transport planes that it could move only one division at a time to the Middle East. Most U.S. troops found themselves flying to a potential war by chartered commercial airliner. Said Gary Hart, a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination: “By putting so many of our military eggs in the strategic nuclear basket in the 1980s, we are now virtually muscle-bound in dealing with regional conflicts.”

But last week, among the most haunting issues that remained was how, and if, Bush could rein in the daunting display of military muscle already assembling in the Persian Gulf. In an interview with Maclean’s last month, the President confided that at the outbreak of the Second World War, before the United States had entered the hostilities, he had briefly considered signing up with the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to join the fighting more quickly. But now, nearly 50 years later, those watching around an increasingly uneasy world can only hope that the youthful caution that restrained him at that time will color his wis-

dom as commander-in-chief.

MARCI MCDONALD in Kennebunkport