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COLUMN RIGHT : Face-Saving Is No Reason to Go to War : Bush goes to the brink without clear policies, goals or a true understanding of the consequences.

January 13, 1991|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is Washington editor of the American Spectator

It would be a shockingly cold-blooded thing if the United States were to attack another country, thousands of miles away, merely because it had not complied with a U.N. resolution--as bad as shooting a hostage in front of TV cameras in order to advance a political cause. Mikhail Gorbachev may reasonably have concluded that if Iraq is in our sphere of interest, Lithuania and Latvia surely are within his. If the United States starts a war, we will not exactly be in a strong moral position to protest a Soviet crackdown in the Baltics. So much for the new world order.

It is said that if the United States does not now follow up on its earlier threats with the actual use of force, then we will "lose credibility" in the international arena. Does this mean that one mistake must be compounded by another? Is widespread loss of life preferable to the loss of face among a small group of officials?

If President Bush launches a war without congressional approval, he should be impeached. The threat that he would thereby pose to the Constitution would far exceed that posed by Saddam Hussein to our "interests" in the region. (What is that threat, exactly? It is still not clear. All along, he has been eager to sell us oil. We are the ones who have prevented its export.) On the other hand, congressional support, if it is forthcoming, will provide constitutional cover but not moral justification for an unprovoked attack on Iraq.

The long-run consequences of such a war are unknowable, of course. But we can say with confidence that "regional stability" will not be among them. In fact, the whole notion of starting a war to restore stability is an Orwellian absurdity. Last week, Richard Nixon achieved the same absurdist note when he said that this would not be a war about oil but "a war about peace"--peace for "our children and grandchildren."

One had hoped that the "global village"--the dynamics of worldwide communication and televised diplomats--would make war more difficult. Maybe that still is a possibility. At the moment, however, the blaze of publicity seems to be making it harder for either side to back down. Moreover, Bush has inflamed the contest of wills by trying to deny Hussein a face-saving way of retreating. He must leave Kuwait "with his tail between his legs," said Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. Anything less will "reward aggression," Bush blithely says. But demanding humiliation in addition to retreat is a sure formula for war.

At his press conference after the failed meeting in Geneva, Bush referred to the "world coalition" opposed to Hussein. All along he has set great store by this facade of unity and collective action. But as commentator Charles Krauthammer pointed out recently, the United Nations has acted as a convenient "fig leaf." Everyone knows that the conflict is really between the United States and Hussein, he said. Everyone except George Bush, one is tempted to add. He really does seem to believe in the tangible reality of such diplomatic hot air as "the international community."

In the event of a war, this community will prove to be more evanescent than Bush might hope. For one thing, the aggression that he believes justifies our intervention is not at all unusual. As Los Angeles lawyer Christopher Layne pointed out at a Cato Institute conference on the crisis this week, there have been at least 52 cases of border-crossing aggression since World War II. Bush should say how we decide when we go to war to preserve borders intact, and when we don't.

"It has to do with the aggression against Kuwait," Bush explained at his press conference, "the invasion of Kuwait, the brutalizing of the people in Kuwait." Oh. People were also being brutalized in Mogadishu, Somalia, last week and in lots of other places around the world. More than 700 people were murdered in the Washington, D.C., area last year. We can't go to war around the world because people somewhere are being brutalized.

Bush has let it be known that he prefers foreign policy to domestic politics. In this respect he resembles many earlier Presidents, notably Nixon. He seems to think of foreign affairs as an arena of pure power, in which you can identify an aggressor, line up coalition partners by phone and then play the game of nations. It's a game that usually works out very nicely on those illuminated war-room charts. The real thing is likely to be a very different matter.

More than anything Bush has seemed eager to "teach Saddam Hussein a lesson," and to show the world that he, Bush, once learned a lesson, too--the lesson of Munich. A war with Iraq will no doubt teach us a new lesson--perhaps a lesson about the hubris of power.

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