The Bush administration will be trying this week to win U.N. Security Council endorsement for a military strike to force Saddam Hussein's occupying forces out of Kuwait. Better the president should be seeking international participation in such an adventure. A Security Council go-ahead would only intensify his dilemma.
The dilemma is this: He has boxed himself into a corner where war is becoming his sole credible alternative, and the American people don't want war.
So far he has been able to avoid the implications of the dilemma, because Saddam doesn't want war either. But Bush seems to believe that time is on the side of the Iraqi, who not only is spared the problem of girding for a war halfway around the world but is also free of the necessity to win popular support for his actions. Moreover, Saddam knows that we don't want war.
Thus he is likely to discount any Security Council resolution as he has discounted the initial deployment of U.S. forces to defend Saudi Arabia and the subsequent augmentation that transformed America's gulf presence into a potential offensive force. Why should he pay attention to the buildup, whether of troops, armaments or diplomacy, if he believes that we won't fight?
Suppose the Security Council passes the war-authorizing resolution. Bush would hardly order an attack (absent some further Iraqi provocation) without seeking the approval of Congress. But if he thought Congress would approve a war against Iraq -- even for the limited purpose of liberating Kuwait -- he would already have summoned the legislators back to Washington for that purpose.
You know that, and so does Saddam.
It isn't that Americans are too chicken to fight or that they fear losing to the Iraqi despot. The problem is that all the reasons Bush has offered for going to war if all else fails do not strike the American people as sufficient justification for launching one.
Oil? We're getting all we need, though the price is higher than we'd like. World order? No one believes that the world -- particularly Saddam's part of it -- will be an orderly place even if Iraq is defeated. Jobs? Secretary of State James Baker's notion that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is, at bottom, a threat to America jobs and therefore worth a war, is ludicrous on its face. Vital American interests? And what might those be?
A friend whose 19-year-old son recently enlisted in the Air Force makes the point. "He asked me a question I couldn't answer," the friend told me the other day. "He reminded me that the administration made a big deal about the export of cocaine into this country -- said it was against our vital interests and even declared a 'war on drugs.' And yet, he said, we have not bombed, we have not attacked overtly or covertly, the countries that are supplying thosed deadly drugs. 'If Bush is serious,' he asked me, 'why aren't we massing troops and planes and helicopters for an attack on the drug cartels of Colombia and elsewhere?' I didn't know what to tell him."
I don't either. Surely it isn't that Bush doubts the deadly nature of the traffic in drugs. Thousands of Americans -- most of them, like my friend's son, young black men -- die every year as a direct or indirect result of drugs. Surely it isn't that he doesn't know where the drugs are being produced and processed or who is principally responsible for their importation. Surely he doesn't doubt that drugs amount to a kind of chemical warfare on the youth of this country.
The only plausible reason he has not translated his "war on drugs" rhetoric into military action is that he knows that to do so risks unacceptable consequences.
In short, Bush's reason for not making war on Colombia is roughly the same as his reason for not launching an attack on Baghdad.
He would have done so if he had been given an acceptable pretext -- as happened with Manuel Noriega in Panama. Bush would have done so as part of an international force aimed at eliminating the drug traffic. But he wouldn't do so alone.
And so it is in the Persian Gulf. For all the provocation of the "naked aggression" against Kuwait, Saddam has studiously avoided any further action that might give Bush a politically salable reason for attacking. And the international support Bush has mustered against Iraq is either of a nonmilitary or merely defensive nature.
If we go to war against Iraq, it will be America's war, and Americans don't want it.
Whether the U.N. resolution succeeds or fails, Bush will still lack the go-ahead he most desperately needs: from the American people.
What is left for him to do? Either he must find a politically acceptable reason to risk the lives of thousands of American troops, or he must convince America to exercise the patience it takes to give the economic sanctions a chance to work.