Empty Words

PRESIDENT BUSH, riding on an incredible 90 percent approval rating, declared at the end of the war in the Persian Gulf that the ghost of Vietnam had been laid to rest, and in the wake of the Gulf triumph he seemed to be right.

With a successful, sanitized war, Americans regained the faith in the government and military that was shattered in Watergate and Vietnam. There were no regrets, no divisions. Everyone agreed: The war was right. Bush had vindicated America's lost honor in a perfectly just war.

Unfortunately for Bush, the sincerity of his moral claims did not withstand the test of even a few weeks.

Bush reacted quickly to the presumed threat of Iraqi aggression with a series of brilliant diplomatic and military maneuvers. He made a sure commitment to attack and stuck by it, no matter what the potential for peaceful solutions. Most importantly, his battle strategy fooled Saddam and defeated him quickly and completely, with massive destruction to the Iraqi people and to the Iraqi infrastructure, and with few American casualties.

Yet success cannot obscure the questions which need to be asked about Bush's motives in the Gulf conflict.

ALL RATIONAL PEOPLE agree that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant who remains a threat to Middle East peace. In fact, the Democratic Congress urged the Bush Administration for years to cut off aid to Iraq for its blatant human rights abuses. Why did President Bush steadfastly support Saddam until the invasion of the Kuwaiti oil fields?

The man who rained poison gas on his own people was an ally of both Reagan and Bush, but the man who invaded Kuwait was Bush's "Hitler." Was Bush waking up to his administration's mistakes or merely being hypocritical?

For a few weeks, Bush's success allowed him to escape these questions. The national consensus seemed to be that Bush was the moral leader in the Gulf crisis, even if he may have been a fool before it.

However, Bush's actions in the weeks following the Gulf War have destroyed his credibility as the leader of a just cause. First came the embarrassing question: If this was a war for American ideals, why did Bush feel he could not push even modest democratic social reforms on the Kuwait monarchy that was saved by American men and women?

Second, questions arose over the Kuwaitis' random arrest, torture and execution of alleged "collaborators," atrocities similar to some of the Iraqi actions which so sickened Bush the rhetorician.

Finally, and most troubling, came the damning question: Why did Bush the just warrior feel no qualms about bombing Iraq into a pre-industrial state and then refuse to support the revolt he had encouraged? It seems the Butcher of Baghdad can be left alone now that he is slaughtering Kurds and Iraqis, and not Kuwaitis.

BUSH SOLD the American public on his war by convincing the nation that it was about American ideals, about national sovereignty and legitimacy, about standing up for defenseless people when evil dictators threaten. About showing courage and leadership for the world.

Before last August, many Americans derided Bush as a tentative wimp and an uninspiring leader. But in the light of Desert Storm--the very name evokes visions of quick triumph--the nation praised the president for his decisive reaction to Iraqi aggression.

Then after the war, Bush wavered for weeks on whether and how to support the rebellions. Saddam crushed the revolts and began to slaughter civilians. The triumphant Bush now looked more like an impotent Truman in Korea, even with the nation's favorite general, Norman Schwartzkopf, playing the role of Douglas MacArthur second guessing the commander-in-chief.

Apparently Bush's sense of national honor only applies to people who serve some national interest. Despite his rhetoric, Bush never really believed that this war was about ideals; if he did he could not stand by and watch the Kurds and Shiites die by the thousands, begging for help.

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