WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, when he first dispatched troops to Saudi Arabia, President Bush said he was drawing "a line in the sand."
But the line keeps shifting.
As the crisis in the Persian Gulf has intensified, the United States has been adding to the list of formal and informal objectives it hopes to achieve with its massive military deployment. "There's a kind of list which gets revised as they go along," said one prominent analyst, Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution.
At first, the only stated mission of the U.S. military force was to help defend Saudi Arabia. The other initial objective was to overturn the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, but this goal was to be accomplished through international economic sanctions, not the use of troops. "That is not the mission, to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait," the President said Aug. 8.
At his press conference Wednesday, by contrast, Bush refused to rule out the use of U.S. troops to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
And in recent days, as the U.S. military buildup has proceeded and Iraq has rounded up more foreigners, the list of American aims appears to have expanded beyond these two limited goals.
One new objective, of course, is to have Iraq free all of the Americans now confined inside its borders and those of Kuwait.
Beyond that, some influential Americans are advocating the use of American military power to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and to cripple Iraqi's military capability, or at least its capacity to engage in chemical and nuclear warfare.
"The restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty and the total withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait are important. But stopping Saddam from obtaining nuclear weapons is more important still," Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense in the Ronald Reagan Administration, wrote in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.
Similarly, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, in a syndicated column four days ago, argued that even restoration of the government of Kuwait "might provide only a breathing space if . . . Hussein remains in office and he continues to build up its nuclear and chemical weapons potential."
The President himself has not openly embraced these additional goals--although he told reporters vaguely two weeks ago that he hopes the Iraqi people will "do something" about Hussein unless the Iraqi leader "changes his spots."
But the talk about using American troops to overthrow Hussein and to destroy Iraq's chemical weapons facilities remains extremely controversial.
"It's easy to talk in a jingoistic or bellicose manner about (the United States) striking first," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense specialist and national security assistant to conservative Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "But we have to live with 400 million people in the Arab world after we do so. And we have to live in a world where, beyond Iraq, there is global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
Why does the list of American objectives seem to be growing?
To some extent, the Bush Administration is responding to developments of the past two weeks. Since U.S. troops were dispatched, Hussein has announced plans to detain the 3,000 Americans trapped in Iraq and Kuwait. Iraqi troops have begun to round up Americans, and Westerners have been taken as "shields" to Iraqi military installations.
However, some experts believe that the Bush Administration has chosen to up the ante more than events would strictly require.
"We started out with reasonably limited objectives: prevent an invasion of Saudi Arabia, maybe pressure Saddam Hussein to give up Kuwait. But now, suddenly, the objectives have just gone out of sight--they've escalated dramatically," says David Aaron, who served on the National Security Council staff in the Jimmy Carter Administration. "In a few sentences, in a few speeches, George Bush has escalated American objectives in the gulf beyond our capabilities short of a major war."
To scale back these objectives, Aaron said, "the President now has to walk back the cat and do a deal with Hitler, and that would be incredibly difficult politically."
There is another reason that the goals for the U.S. troops seem to be growing. Two weeks ago, the consensus of U.S. officials and experts was that over the long run, Hussein gradually would be undermined and defeated by the economic embargo against him.
Because the United States and the Soviet Union stand together, and because so many other nations are participating in the U.N.-sanctioned trade embargo against Iraq, the argument went, the international sanctions will succeed. As a result, even when the President dispatched the U.S. troops, he said they are there only to defend the Saudis, and not to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Initial confidence about winning a months-long test of nerves against Iraq seems to be eroding. "Time is not on our side," Kissinger said. Several U.S. officials have privately voiced the same fear.