The Republican Party can consider itself lucky that George Bush ordered all hose troops over to Saudi Arabia on short notice. That way, the soldiers didn't have time to get absentee ballots for the Nov. 6 congressional elections.
By Election Day, if American GIs are still hunkered down in the desert eating canned rations and stomping scorpions, there might be more than a few wishing they could send a message back home via the ballot box. Their patriotism will have worn off in direct proportion to the amount of sweat and dirt they have accumulated in the absence of showers.
Their affection for the president who put them there and went golfing will wear off too. Americans can't give Bush the boot this year, but they can register a protest by making the GOP pay for his sins.
Today, the sentiment on both sides of the aisle is behind Bush, but Democrats will begin to fall out of the ranks as soon as they sense that public opinion is souring on the Persian Gulf deployment. The hottest issue in the congressional campaign should be the savings and loan scandal. But instead it will be this: For what reason, at what price and how long should U.S. soldiers linger in the Middle East?
Come Thanksgiving, if Bush hasn't solved the crisis, his problems will multiply. The pictures of disgruntled GIs eating cold turkey out of a can will guarantee that.
And come Christmas, if Bush hasn't tied the crisis up with a neat bow and brought the troops home, there won't be a shred of patriotism left in the country, not to mention two nickels to scratch together for the S&L bailout.
Bush's problems of public opinion and political gamesmanship at home will be compounded as he wears out his welcome in the gulf. Arabs have long been distrustful of the West in general and the United States in particular. Arab nations have been beaten by the West in battle after battle over the past century, and the West has defined the terms of peace as well as the borders of nearly every country in the Middle East.
Moslems believe Westerners don't respect Islam. The American GI, not always the best envoy for the United States, is now a constant reminder of that lack of respect. If the GIs sit in Saudi Arabia for too long, it is a certain recipe for diplomatic disaster.
Saudi Arabians disdain drinking, prostitution and other Western vices. Saudi women bare just enough of their skin to see and breathe, even in the heat of summer. This is the world capital of celibacy, sobriety and self-control.
It is also the home of Mecca and Medina, the most sacred sites in Islam. The Saudis let precious few non-Moslems into their country without a good reason, and they let none near Mecca for any reason. If the Pentagon and the president have concerns about GIs hustling Saudi women or making moonshine, they should be having nightmares about GIs treading near holy ground.
When Bush vacationed in spite of the gulf crisis, he insisted that he would not be inconvenienced by Saddam Hussein. He was wrong. The inconvenience to the president has only just begun.