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PERSPECTIVE ON THE GULF WAR : Overseas, It's Not the Yanks' War : Others in the coalition will claim victory to suit themselves--in the case of Britain's John Major, for political survival.

January 23, 1991|PETER STOTHARD | Peter Stothard is the U . S . editor of The Times of London. and

We British do not think that the Americans are winning the war against Saddam Hussein. We think that "our boys" are.

Our French friends have been cautious combatants all along. But now that the air raids are rocking along so well, Francois Mitterrand's formidable heroes (best Parisian pronunciation, please) are leading la liberation de Kuwait. As for the courageous Italians, they cannot wait to drive the beast of Baghdad from his lair.

Readers of the European popular press--and those TV watchers who can avoid CNN--are right behind their own national gulf wars. Even in coalition-partner Bangladesh, we hear, they also triumph who sit and wait for the counteroffensive.

War is politics by other means. The outcome of the fighting will determine not only President Bush's future. Campaigns on the home fronts began from the moment that Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, said "Desert Storm."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 24, 1991 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Column 1 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Peter Stothard--In some editions Wednesday, a typesetting error dropped two words from a commentary by Peter Stothard. The sentence should have read, "Since his entry into 10 Downing Street, Major has, however, shown not the slightest diversion from the Thatcher policy."

America need not be disturbed by this. But it ought to know about it before ordering its postwar uniform of the Victorious Free World Commander. There will be many claimants for the title "Saddam beater" and little gratitude to those who dominated the real battles. History is always written by the victors. This time, there will be almost 30 of them, including many able to outdo the Americans at writing, if at little else.

In Britain, the war is an extraordinary opportunity for the very ordinary man who two months ago took over as prime minister from Margaret Thatcher. If John Major is judged to have had a "good war," it will go a long way toward winning him an election in his own right against a much-revived Labor Party opposition.

To the dismay of some advisers, Major has lagged well behind his media supporters in making capital out of Tornado-fighter raids and 1,000-pound bombs. Unlike Thatcher, who told Britons to "rejoice, rejoice" when Argentina lost the fight for the Falklands in 1982, Major has maintained a demeanor of studious distance--even from the somber scenes of battered British airmen on Iraqi television.

Unlike Thatcher, who made her Conservative Party Chairman Cecil Parkinson the chief government spokesman for the Falklands War, Major has kept his own party boss out of the television studios. When the patriotic mood has demanded Churchillian rhetoric and nonstop news of our "Desert Rats," Major has spoken like a Rotarian before his first lunch club.

On the day that the Kuwaiti crisis began, Thatcher had been shoulder-to-shoulder with George Bush. She also had appeared to be the one putting the words of defiance into his mouth.

When the decision to invade Iraq was taken five months later, the contrast was inevitable and striking. The British prime minister, with his large round glasses and moon-white face, seemedlike a monogram on the President's pocket handkerchief.

There is much doubt in London whether, if the parliamentary coup against Thatcher had happened in July, Britain would be as heavily committed to war as it now is. Thatcher lost power partly because she was judged hostile to ambitious European initiatives. Major, who won by appearing more amenable to the French and Germans, might have been seduced for a while by Mitterrand's diplomatic schemes.

Since his entry into 10 Downing Street, Major has, however, shown not the slightest diversion from the Thatcher policy. In Washington, there is only satisfaction with his performance. It may be said that, because he had no real choice in the war policy, the war says little about the man. But even if a prime minister has no control over events, events can define a prime minister.

As the war continues, Major will be molded by its demands whether he likes it or not. The vote-winning jingoism can (and will) come later. British public opinion has been longer and stronger behind American policy than that of the United States itself. That support has risen since war began and will not be deflected by losses in the sky or the grotesque Iraqi abuse of prisoners of war.

Major is beginning his term in office as the staunchest friend of the United States. No one should worry when Britain talks of the next great British victory in the desert. We British only hope that if Saddam Hussein is killed in action, a Frenchman doesn't get him.

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