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COLUMN RIGHT : Bush Has His Politics Backward : There's only harm for Bush in shouldering gulf decisions alone.

November 18, 1990|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is an editor of American Spectator magazine and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution

"In all the reams of drivel I have read about our sacred duty to oppose military dictators and punish wrongdoers everywhere," the right-wing curmudgeon Auberon Waugh writes in the (London) Daily Telegraph, "I have not seen a single suggestion that anything useful can be achieved by the use of force to restore the status quo in the gulf." He predicted that if a major war erupts, "an anger will well up among all the civilized people of the free world which will dwarf the antics of the American anti-war lobby."

As it happens, there was an anti-war rally the other night on the Stanford University campus--no doubt a first for many of the several hundred students who attended. A 1960s veteran of such rallies told me that this one was by comparison "bourgeois" and polite; but he was impressed by the turnout, given the late hour and the chilly weather. At midnight, dozens were still sitting on the cold ground, writing letters to their congressmen.

And the war hasn't even started yet. No doubt Auberon Waugh is right. If the United States launches an unprovoked attack on Iraq, the domestic response, perhaps the world response, is likely to be explosive.

Which tells us that President Bush is now in an extremely awkward position. If he attacks, the political cost will be high. But a retreat is equally out of the question. One obvious move is open to him, however, and is being urged upon him from all sides: He should involve Congress in his own predicament. Constitutionally, the declaration of war is up to Congress. Bush, therefore, should invite that body to declare war. Whether they said yes or no, Bush would be in a much easier position. The hot potato of warmongering (or weakness) would be in Congress' lap.

But this is what Bush doesn't want to do. True, he met with congressional leaders. But when they reminded him of their prerogatives, Bush pulled a copy of the Constitution from his pocket and replied: "I know what the Constitution says, but it also says I am commander in chief."

It is baffling that the President should be so reluctant to use this readily available escape route. Perhap she is acting on the basis of information not generally available. Another possibility is that he doesn't yet understand the predicament that he is in. This seemed more likely after I spoke to a senior political appointee in the Administration about the President's domestic political acumen.

She told me that Bush was advised that abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge had inflicted serious political damage on him. He knew that his advisers weren't lying to him, she said. "But he still didn't really understand what he had done wrong." As he saw it, he needed to make a deal with Congress to get a budget, and the deal was duly struck.

Bush thinks that politics entails negotiating with known quantities in a private room rather than reaching out to an unknown, wider audience--an anachronistic view, given the vast media apparatus that is uniquely at his disposal. He seems to construe politics as an arena of fixed, well-defined power relations, not as something perennially fluid and amenable to argument and persuasion. The tricky part (he seems to believe) is handling people more powerful than yourself. With really powerful people, like committee chairmen on Capitol Hill, you have to reach the best deal you can. Ditto with big, powerful countries like China.

But with someone like Saddam Hussein, the head of a small country? No deals are needed there. Just telephone your good friends in foreign capitals, arrange for a Security Council vote at the United Nations, and then send the army abroad. Congress needn't be consulted at all.

Notice that Bush has this exactly the wrong way around. In domestic budget negotiations, an uncompromising presidential stance is perfectly appropriate. There's no reason why Congress and the White House should agree on how the domestic spending pie should be divided, or on how big it should be. A few speeches to the American people about how Congress is eager to raise taxes, and no doubt those committee chairmen would begin to look much less omnipotent.

In preparing to go to war, by contrast, agreement with Congress is highly desirable. If the country is not united behind such a drastic course of action, perhaps it never was a good idea. Better, surely, for a President to be pushed into war by popular demand than for him to leap blithely over the top with the electorate lagging reluctantly in the rear. That's the uncomfortable position President Bush finds himself in today. Barring a tremendous stroke of luck, he will find it difficult to recover.

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