The August crisis is full upon us: packed White House briefings, international figures coming and going, the sky full of Cabinet officers roaring off to distant places to reason with other officials who can't seem to understand that their national interest is as deeply involved as ours in stopping Saddam Hussein, the beast of Baghdad.
George Bush can't go to Kennebunkport and sit up with a sick spaniel. He is glued to the phone, begging world leaders to see it his way. It's dicey work, and strenuous. But it beats haggling over the federal budget, which is what he was doing at this time last week.
He has an absolutely free hand to solve the crisis. He has said of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, "This will not stand." People agree with him -- bombs, blockades, whatever -- Saddam has asked for it. He is an aggressor easy to hate. He may have a following among have-not Arabs, but Americans, faced with the specter of high oil prices and new hostage-grabs, are emotionally involved in getting rid of the beast.
Congress is completely with the White House at this juncture. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) told a press breakfast of "a strong mood to support the president." Last week, Congress and the president were locked in acrimonious exchanges over the military budget, and Saddam was often evoked as living proof that the world is still a nasty place, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Foley indicated that Congress, which is so often accused of meddling and micro-managing by irate presidents, is absolutely clueless about what to do.
The president may be in the same boat. He is doing all that could be asked of him to round up world opinion and present a united front against Saddam. He knows that the days of unilateralism are over. A regional solution is out of the question. Arab nations, which Egypt's Hosni Mubarak initially insisted could provide a regional solution, called off an emergency session of the Arab League. Jordan's King Hussein, on whom we perennially pin our hopes despite an unbroken history of letdown, is defending Saddam as "a patriot."
The European Community and Japan came through with a boycott. So did the United Nations, which voted sanctions. But the biggest move of all -- cutting off the Kuwaiti and Iraq pipelines that run through Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- is in some question.
Saudi Arabia is in imminent danger of being invaded by Saddam, and Turkey is supposedly our faithful NATO ally. But both countries have been playing hard to get. The Saudis are cowering in their tents, apparently not wishing to be saved if it means accepting American help against Arab brothers.
Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney has gone to Riyadh, hoping to talk real world to the House of Fahd. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is tackling Turkey. But even success could mean failure, in that shutting off the oil could raise prices further here and set off inflation.
At the heart of the problem is the character of Saddam Hussein. He grew up mean, with a gun in his hand. He rules through repression and torture. Last spring, he had an inquiring reporter for the London Observer hanged.
He used poison gas against the Kurds, a minority of his own people. He used poison gas against thousands of Iranians in the eight-year war he started. He is capable of anything.
Bush has already, correctly, ordered plans for covert action to destabilize the regime in Baghdad. It's more notice to Saddam that the Munich analogy, inappropriately invoked during the Vietnam War, really applies here, and that the West won't have it.
What about bombing Baghdad? It would be a sharp expression of world displeasure and cut into Saddam's image of invincibility. But what about the retaliation? Would Saddam move up his timetable on the invasion of Saudi Arabia? Would he arrange the seizure of hundreds of hostages among the Americans working in the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?
The fact that the two superpowers are standing shoulder to shoulder, that the Soviets have offered a warship for joint maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, is a wonderful post-Cold War show of solidarity, but it is a sideshow.
They are both well-represented in the arsenals of Kuwait and Iraq. Kuwait has billions of dollars of U.S. weapons, which haven't done it much good. Saddam is lavishly equipped with the best that Soviet defense factories can turn out. He also has a pretty good supply of American hardware. It was captured on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war.
The best thing Bush has going for him is the just about unanimous approval to do whatever is necessary.