PRESIDENT Bush got what he wanted this weekend--Congressional authorization to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by military force. Though his margin of victory was anything but decisive (just five votes in the Senate), the President has accomplished his aim of presenting a hard-line "united front" against Saddam Hussein.
Freed from the fetters of Constitutional separation of powers, Bush has a free hand to do as he sees fit after tomorrow's U.N. deadline. By all rights, Bush can take the country to war. That doesn't mean he should.
Ignoring, for the moment, the enormous human and economic costs of a war, Bush should restrain himself for the simple reason that many of his supporters trust him (foolishly, we think) to seek a peaceful resolution.
In the debate over the use-of-force resolutions, one after another member of Congress rose to voice reservations about war in the Gulf, but support for the proposed resolutions. Their reason: President Bush needs to present a credible threat of war to Saddam, and Congressional pusillanimity would undercut his standing. No less a hawk than Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) warned that Bush should not interpret the resolution as "a hunting license." The Washington Post backed the use-of-force resolution only because it might move the country "measurably closer to peace," and The New York Times gave its hesitant endorsement for the same reason.
Clearly, many supporters of the resolution expect (or at least hope) that Bush will use his newly won war powers with discretion, that he will exhaust all possibilities for a peaceful solution before he considers war.
Tragically, we suspect that these people have been taken for suckers. Bush, who recently said he is inclined to resort to military force "sooner rather than later," seems intent on holding a major recruitment drive for the Gold Star Mothers Association without giving peace a chance.
MORE specifically, he won't give economic sanctions a chance. According to the administration's own intelligence sources, the economic embargo is begining to bite. Although economic sanctions have been historically less successful than some imagine, the unprecedented, near-universal international support for the current embargo might help it succeed where others failed. Even if economic distress cannot unseat Saddam, it can hamper his ability to wage war. The sustenance of the Iraqi population and the readiness of its fighting forces decline with each day they go without supplies from abroad. Four out of the last five Secretaries of Defense and the last chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urge waiting for sanctions to further erode Iraq's military effectiveness before we consider attacking.
Congressional hawks argued that the longer we wait to attack, the more chances Saddam has to divide the fragile international coalition arrayed against him. This reasoning is 180 degrees wrong. The real danger to allied unity is that most of our coalition partners--Germany, Britain, Turkey and Jordan among them--face strong domestic opposition to a military solution. Sanctions may be the only instrument of policy that their citizens will support.
They also argue that the morale of U.S. troops will decline the longer they remain in the desert. But as Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf, commander of U.S. ground forces in the Gulf, has stated, "If it's a choice between spending another summer in the desert and dying," the desert doesn't seem so bad.
The only other justification given for an immediate offensive is that while the U.S. waits, the rape of Kuwait continues unabated. This is as true as it is unfortunate, and as hypocritical as it is either. Conservatives have found plenty of pragmatic reasons to overlook human rights abuses before. We stood off with the Soviet Union for 45 years without resorting to war; the costs simply would have been too immense. We maintained sanctions against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for 12 years before they worked. We have applied sanctions against South Africa for four years and against Cuba for 31 years and counting. Is one year so long to wait before we commit ourselves to certain bloodshed?
War may ultimately prove the only way to dislodge the Iraqis from Kuwait. But if only out of regard for the families of the men and women who would be sacrificed, Bush should be damn sure that war is his only recourse. Less than six months after Iraq's invasion, he cannot be so sure.