Two days after voters told pollsters that the threat of war in the Persian Gulf was one of the least important issues on their minds, President Bush's announcement yesterday of new troop deployments and additional reserve call-ups drew a muted response.
The news had been widely expected, and the announcement was issued at a time when many senior members of Congress were on vacation and financial markets had closed. Only Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) criticized the president's move. Some members of the Democratic leadership in Congress declined to say anything.
Bush's news conference was originally scheduled for 3 p.m. yesterday, but was rescheduled for an hour later, after the close of oil trading at the New York Mercantile Exchange. Fear that war in the gulf region would disrupt oil supplies has led traders on the exchange to bid up oil prices more than 100 percent since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2. White House officials said the market's schedule was not the reason for the delay, but in any case, the change nullified any immediate impact on oil prices.
Bush said the latest deployment and call-up, estimated to total an additional 200,000 troops, would allow the United States and its allies to move from a defensive posture in Saudi Arabia to an "adequate offensive military option" if needed to force Iraq out of Kuwait.
Pell said in a statement that he was "concerned that the administration is moving to establish an offensive capability in advance of a United Nations resolution authorizing offensive action."
He said Bush "would be badly advised to go to war without clear prior expression of congressional support. I am not yet persuaded that the expected gains from offensive action would be worth the likely high loss of American lives and greatly increased economic costs."
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said through spokesmen that they had no comment.
But Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, said the president's action "makes sense."
He said there has been "a lot of confusion in recent weeks as the president has tried to send the message to Iraq that we mean business and are ready to use force and to the American people that we are not about to go to war. . . . Now the president is trying to send a much clearer message to the Iraqis."
As for the callup of mechanized and armored units of the National Guard, senior members of Congress -- including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) -- had been urging it as a test of the Pentagon's "total force" policy, by which part of the Army's combat strength is kept in reserve status to save manpower costs.
Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), a senior member of the House Armed Services subcommiteee on military personnel, said the administration promised Congress it would activate the combat National Guard units as part of a deal by which Congress extended the length of time they could remain on active duty from six months to a year.
His state's 155th Armored Brigade, one of the activated units, is "well trained and ready to go" after desert warfare exercises with the 1st Cavalry Division, he said. "They should have been sent with the 1st Cav when it went over. It was a mistake by the Defense Department not to send them," Montgomery said.
Montgomery is a strong supporter of the "total force" concept. "Now is the time to test it. In the past 10 years, Congress has given $100 billion to these units in equipment, incentives and training. In the total force, you train together and you march off together," he said.
In Mississippi, the activation of the National Guard will increase popular support for the president, Montgomery said. "This will strengthen the president's position in these local communities where these units are called up. People will have more interest. You want them to do the job and come home as quickly as possible," he said.