If in 1989 you had the feeling that the 20th century was ending 11 years early, it was because the collapse of the Soviet empire occasioned a surplus of end-of-an-era articles, including one which famously predicted the "end of history" itself. One reason it did so, you may recall, is that country after country was moving toward democracy and democracies do not make war. I'll say.
And so might President Bush. The commander in chief has been accused by friend and foe alike of high ineptitude. Faced with a clear example of aggression in which our economic interests (oil) are also at stake, the president has nevertheless been unable to explain to the American people why they might have to go to war. As a great communicator, George Bush is a great disappointment.
But the question really is whether any president could have done better -- significantly better. Certainly, the Bush administration has been inept, even strangely so. The president's reluctance to state his aims clearly to the American people in a formal evening television address is a mystery. The decision instead to write a (mostly) unread essay in Newsweek is downright weird.
Having said that, though, you then have to consider whether anyone can make the case Bush's critics (including me) want made. In other words, you have to wonder whether any democracy will enter into a war when its national security is not clearly and immediately in danger. The last time something other than that was attempted, Vietnam, it so roiled the body politic that a president of Trumpian ambition, Lyndon Johnson, chose not to seek reelection. Even his successor, Richard Nixon, was felled by a scandal whose roots went deep into the political divisions caused by the war. These kinds of wars seem to be a losing proposition -- even if they could be won on the battlefield.
One explanation is the reluctance of a democracy to make war for strategic purposes only. Lacking a clearly threatening enemy -- some infidel at the gates -- democracies sometimes resort to fatuous arguments to rally public opinion. In Vietnam, that meant extolling the near fictional democratic nature of South Vietnam and taking the domino theory to a ludicrous extent -- all the way to San Francisco.
Now the Bush administration is attempting a similar tactic. Having discovered through polling that eliminating Iraq's nuclear potential strikes more Americans as a reason for war than, say, punishing aggression or keeping down the price of oil, the administration is now emphasizing that point. But the consensus of the experts is that Iraq is probably years from its goal. When Bush emphasized Saddam Hussein's potential nuclear threat during his Thanksgiving visit to Saudi Arabia, it was not because of what spy satellites had found in Iraq. It was because of what's been found in the polls.
This is not leadership but its opposite. But following the polls is precisely the way Bush got to be president: Willie Horton, the Pledge of Allegiance and all that jazz. Bush may think that what worked for him once will work again. Why lead when simply by stifling the gag reflex you can reach your goal by pandering?
The answer is that it's war we're talking about. To die for a lie -- the elimination of a nonexistent nuclear threat -- is to die a sucker. The public, once it catches on, will not forgive that. Our recent experience is that presidents who take this course lose the confidence of either most Americans or a significant number of them.
Possibly no president could make a case for war in the Persian Gulf. The region and, thus, the danger seem too remote to most Americans. But Grenada and Panama are instructive. The case could have been made for a quick strike, a retaliation and punishment for a transgression fresh in the mind. But Bush has more than muddled his message. He has ironically democratized the crisis by sending in huge number of troops. The children of too many parents are now in the desert. Their mothers and fathers cannot fathom why they should die there. In any case, they have not been told.
Whether to impress Saddam Hussein or not, Bush seems intent on war. But if he is not really bluffing, he ought to understand that having missed his moment, he cannot now go to war until he has made the case for it. Unless it is over quickly -- and who can guarantee that? -- this war will be lost abroad because it was not sold at home. That's the burden of democracy for its leaders. That's its benefit for its citizens.