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Needed: A Clearer 'Why' Before America Goes to War : Commander-in-chief needs to be a better communicator-in-chief

November 11, 1990

President Truman lost public backing for the war he sent American forces to fight in Korea in part because U.S. aims in that conflict wavered and grew confused, in part because steady fighting produced mounting casualties without achieving conclusive military or political results. President Johnson similarly lost public support as his geopolitical explanations for being in Vietnam came either to lose their credibility or to seem less important when weighed against the war's mounting human, economic and moral costs. The failure by his predecessors to hold on to public support can't be far from President Bush's mind as he confronts the growing possibility that the nation could soon find itself in a shooting war with Iraq.

It has always been essential that Bush keep Americans clearly informed of the aims of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, of the stakes involved in opposing aggression, of the chance that recourse to military force might become unavoidable if economic and political pressures don't force Iraq to back down. As the U.S. buildup continues--force levels in the area will soon double--that need grows more urgent. Yet Bush has done too little to satisfy it, least of all in his recent and inapt campaign oratory.

The Saddam Hussein-as-Hitler analogy that Bush kept invoking has never been convincing, only embarrassing. The Iraqi dictator is a regional menace, not a threat to civilized life on the planet. He is a megalomaniac who can be dealt with by means well short of the prolonged and enormously costly international war that was required to crush Nazi Germany and its allies. To suggest, as Bush has done, that Saddam Hussein's effort to close embassies in Kuwait is Hitlerian in its wickedness trivializes Nazism's horrors and insults its millions of victims. It does nothing to define the worthy and vital goals that have sent hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf. Bush can--must--do better than that if he hopes to keep public support behind him.

The United States and its Western allies have sent their forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf for two main reasons. The first is to honor the old-fashioned but ever-valid principle that the unprovoked seizure of another country's territory and the degradation of its people is unacceptable and should be punished whenever the means to do so exist. That is not a moral axiom only; it is a rock-solid political imperative, a foundation of international order.

History provides a second reason in its dismal catalogue of proofs that aggression that goes unresisted and unpunished invites a harvest of additional aggressions. An Iraq permitted to gobble up Kuwait would soon enough grow hungry for new conquests. Even more compelling, an Iraq permitted to hold on to a significant share of the world's oil reserves--and through its demonstrated ruthlessness to dictate pricing policies to other oil-producing neighbors--could do incalculable and continuing harm to the world's economies.

The reasons for the U.S. intervention in the gulf are sound and certainly supportable. Whether they are fully understood by Americans is another matter. As the United States seeks U.N. Security Council authorization for a possible use of collective military force against Iraq, as its offensive capability in Saudi Arabia swells, it becomes increasingly important for Bush to articulate the purposes and goals of U.S. policy towards Iraq thoroughly, more clearly, more convincingly.

It's especially important in mobilizing public support that before turning to the last resort of military force, the President first leave no doubt that every plausible non-military effort to reverse Iraq's aggression was tried.

It's possible that simply sending more troops to Saudi Arabia and getting U.N. sanction for military measures will finally persuade Saddam Hussein that retreat from Kuwait has become unavoidable. That's the preferable choice. It is not the inevitable one. If America is going to be led into war, its President must do a better job than he has so far in telling Americans why there was no other choice.

THE ANTI-IRAQ COALITION Troop Deployments in the Persian Gulf United States: 238,000 Saudi Arabia: 117,700 United Arab Emirates: 43,000 Oman: 25,500 Egypt: 17,000 Britain: 16,000 Syria: 15,000 France: 15,000 Morocco: 5,000 Pakistan: 5,000 Bangladesh: 5,000 Turkey: 5,000 Bahrain: 3,350

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