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America From Abroad : Kuwaiti Patriots See Stars and Stripes Forever : There's a special relationship betwen the United States and the remote Gulf emirate, where Desert Storm 'general' George Bush is a national hero.

August 11, 1992|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — When U.S. Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm Jr. does his rounds of the traditional Kuwaiti evening gatherings known as diwaniyas these days , Kuwaitis from virtually every walk of life hit him with the same question:

"Please, Mr. Ambassador, just tell us: What can we do to help the President?"

Then, invariably, they offer lavish campaign contributions, volunteer their services--anything to get President George Bush reelected.

Never mind that Bush leads a nation thousands of miles and a vast cultural gap away. Never mind that a month before the U.S. presidential election, the Kuwaitis have scheduled their own landmark national election--a historic and politically crucial experiment to bring democracy to this oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate long tightly controlled by a succession of monarchic rulers.

And never mind that the Kuwaitis have only a rudimentary understanding of the American political system--which is why Gnehm must explain U.S. laws governing foreign campaign contributions while reminding questioners that America's Democratic presidents have been as staunch in their military support of the Gulf emirates as the Republicans.

With Iraqi President Saddam Hussein again rattling his sabers just to the north, the Kuwaitis seem to be fretting over Bush's standing in the polls at least as much as the President's reelection team. And they're apparently more concerned about the U.S. political scene than their own exercise in democracy. Their ultimate fear, as Bush weighed yet another military confrontation with Iraq last week, was that Hussein might actually outlast their American benefactor.

"They feel they know what's happening here in their own political contest. No one has any great doubts about the outcome," one Western diplomat said. "But they're deeply afraid about the U.S. election.

"I know this borders on blasphemy, but, for most Kuwaitis, Bush is next to God. They revere him. They know what he has done for them. And they feel the outcome of the election in November will directly affect their own personal survival. . . . It seems it's a question of 'We know (Bush), but we don't know (Democratic nominee Bill Clinton).' So they're all worried."

Visiting Americans are peppered with questions by Kuwaitis. "How is our Mr. Bush doing?" "Is there really a chance our man could lose in November?" and "Who is this Clinton?"

Along with the worry there is, for some at least, economic opportunity. The antique shop inside the Kuwait International Hotel, for example, has started offering "Kuwait Loves George Bush" T-shirts bearing a large color portrait of the American President.

At that, Bush worship is just one component of a new relationship that seems to be emerging between residents of this remote, Islamic Arab emirate and the American nation that many here view not only as liberator and protector but, in the words of so many, as family.

It is a new closeness that goes beyond the blur of Baskin-Robbins, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's and CNN-TV satellite dishes that cover Kuwait city's urban landscape--even beyond the imagery of Kuwaitis gathered around giant-screen TV sets applauding American athletes in the Olympics.

It is increasingly a personal phenomenon that has grown exponentially in the nearly 18 months since hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines were hugged, kissed, fed and coddled in Kuwait city after blasting the country's Iraqi occupiers back over the border.

This attachment was apparent during last week's U.S.-Kuwaiti military exercises--joint "war games" that, in Kuwaiti terms, are living proof that the relationship between the two countries is not merely one-shot opportunism by a superpower policing the free flow of the world's oil, but a lasting friendship.

While Bush Administration officials spoke of the exercises stiffly as part of "our continuing commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf region," Kuwaiti troops were greeting the first of 5,000 arriving U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine forces with high fives and "Hey man, welcome back."

"I've been now twice with the American Navy," said a beaming Kuwaiti Navy Capt. Salman Quabazard after a fun-filled morning zipping around the Gulf on a $95,000, high-tech patrol boat his government is likely to purchase from the Americans. "And now I feel that I'm training with my brothers, because never do I have a bad feeling with the Americans."

"Before, there was a barrier between us," added Kuwaiti Coast Guard Capt. Nabeel Faraj when asked how the training mission differed from those before it. "That barrier doesn't exist anymore."

Assuming that Faraj merely meant a language barrier, an American journalist pressed him a bit. "What barrier?"

"Oh, ah, well, that's a very political issue," he said.

It is, indeed.

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