The belief that President Bush has failed to mobilize the nation for armed militancy against Saddam Hussein led to a remarkable private breakfast Oct. 26 hosted by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador, and attended by some of the capital's foremost advocates of Israel.
At the prince's table were Reps. Stephen Solarz of New York, Tom Lantos of California and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, along with several nongovernment opinion leaders. The congressmen proposed a blue-ribbon committee to convince Americans that war against Iraq may be inescapable and indeed necessary.
For a member of the Saudi royal family to get together with pro-Israeli members of Congress who for years have sought to block U.S. arms sales to the kingdom shows the extent of concern that the president is not convincing the country that war may be necessary. The prince is the Arab world's most committed war hawk (except for Kuwait's deposed Sultan Jabir Ahmed Sabbah) and is by far the most persuasive.
The breakfast came just before Bandar flew back to Riyadh to report American thinking on the Gulf crisis. Bandar was told by the congressmen that Bush needed help in making the public case for a war policy not just to reinstall Kuwait's former rulers but to end the threat from Iraq. One lawmaker advised the prince to join forces with the pro-Israeli lobby here because of Israel's strong pro-war policy and the lobby's clout in Congress. It was then that the congressmen proposed the citizens' committee to beat the war drums.
"Bandar has made a better case for war to the Congress than the president has," Torricelli told us. "Bush is failing, possibly because his judgment was undermined by the budget fight." The congressman, whip of the House Democratic Caucus, said the proposed committee will "help Bush deliver a message he seems incapable of delivering."
Richard Perle, assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, was present, showed interest in the committee and is pushing the proposal. But Democratic wise man Robert Strauss, who served as special Mideast envoy to President Jimmy Carter, also attended and wanted no part of the committee.
Strauss's reticence reflected widespread concern about war in the Gulf among opinion leaders who are neither pacifist nor anti-Israel. Former defense secretary Frank Carlucci was asked to the breakfast, but declined, saying that he had "not progressed that far" in his thinking about the crisis. Another regret came from ex-CIA director Richard Helms.
Twelve days before the breakfast, the president got a taste of that attitude when friends and outside advisers warned him in a highly confidential Sunday evening brainstorming session that war against Saddam Hussein was a dangerous way to get Iraq out of Kuwait.
Couching their advice with customary caution and respect, one after another of the president's visitors in the upstairs White House sitting room warned him against a resort to arms. Even if Iraq was vanquished with no more than the Pentagon's private estimate of a minimum 20,000 American casualties, the aftermath could damage the United States in the Middle East for decades and turn the American people against Bush and toward isolation.
The sole defender of an Iraqi war policy in that Sunday White House te~te-a`-te~te was Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who argued that the U.S. goal must be to depose Saddam Hussein and destroy his arsenal of chemical and other lethal weapons -- just getting him out of Kuwait would not be enough.
Arguing for restraint and toughened sanctions, some vehemently, were several others present: Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, the ex-Marine son-in-law of Lyndon Johnson, former ambassador Lucius Battle, a longtime Mideast diplomat and scholar, and Richard Helms. Also there, but cloaking his own views and saying nothing for or against war, was Strauss.
The caution urged on the president reflects a widespread view among former policy makers. Ex-secretary of state George Shultz, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and ex-defense secretaries Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger are all counted as strong opponents of a war policy.
Bush's reaction to the Sunday meeting was to begin a public campaign against the Iraqi dictator to sharpen American support if war comes. Comparing the president's mood to Woodrow Wilson's passion for the morality of world order, a concerned administration source describes his boss as having "turned stopping an Arab despot into standing astride Poland thwarting the SS Deathhead legions."
For this comment to come from Bush's official family reflects the depth of concern here. Even so faithful an ally as conservative Rep. Henry Hyde criticized him this past weekend for "hyperbolic language" that cuts off discussion. It remains to be seen whether a Saudi and pro-Israeli effort to stir the American people will be more effective.