Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment: For almost four months, the United States has been sleepwalking toward war…

For almost four months, the United States has been sleepwalking toward war. Though there are the trappings of a debate -- hearings in Congress, argument and speculation on the editorial pages, discussion on the public-affairs programs -- thus far they have seemed insubstantial when set against the reality of President Bush's military buildup

FOR almost four months, the United States has been sleepwalking toward war. Though there are the trappings of a debate — hearings in Congress, argument and speculation on the editorial pages, discussion on the public-affairs programs — thus far they have seemed insubstantial when set against the reality of President Bush’s military buildup. Since early August, the Administration has pushed inexorably forward, assembling a vast American Army in the Saudi Arabian desert and bringing it steadily closer to combat. Not until early November, when the President’s decision to send two hundred thousand additional troops made war seem suddenly more real, did the American people and their representatives in Congress, like drugged patients struggling to shake off sleep, begin to raise objections. Weren’t the troops there to protect Saudi Arabia? By sending so many more, hadn’t the Administration made it difficult to maintain the Army over the months it would take for sanctions to work? The Administration’s response to these and other questions has done little to encourage the sort of vigorous debate that should precede the decision of a democracy to go to war; rather, President Bush and his aides have been doing their utmost to put the patients back to sleep.

From the beginning, President Bush’s policy in the Gulf-recently described by Brent Scowcroft, the national-security adviser, as an effort to avoid war by confronting Saddam Hussein with “the prospect of war”was better suited to a dictatorship than to a democracy. For the policy to have a chance of working, the United States had to show itself absolutely determined to go to war if Hussein did not unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait. The President, preoccupied with showing such resolution himself as he spent his days conferring with world leaders, seemed to take it for granted that the American people would follow along. Indeed, he has often appeared eager to avoid any debate whatever, seeking to calm Americans by telling them that he hasn’t made up his mind, while at the same time building up United States forces and threatening Iraq with attack.

As opinion polls have shown Americans growing steadily more skeptical about the President’s course, he has made increasingly impatient, and even irritated, attempts to rally them-or, rather, to quiet them. Though some critics complain that the President has not “made the case” for war, he has in fact made too many cases, like a salesman trying ever more farfetched pitches to sell a product that unaccountably won’t move off the shelves. In August, he warned that the invasion of Kuwait put the American “way of life” at risk; in October, having apparently concluded that the economic argumentmight not convince enough Americans, he began emphasizing the need to confront “naked aggression.” When his November decision to send the additional troops was greeted with criticism, he changed tack again. “Every day that passes brings Saddam. Hussein one step closer to realizing his goal of a nuclear-weapons arsenal,” he told the troops on Thanksgiving. “And that’s why, more and more, your mission is marked by a real sense of urgency.” No evidence was offered for this newly heightened “urgency,” however, and most experts still contend, as they have from the beginning of the crisis, that Iraq would need at the very least a year, and more likely five or ten years, to produce a usable nuclear device. What had changed, it soon became evident, was the market research: two days before Mr. Bush’s speech, the Times had published a poll suggesting that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq was what now most worried Americans.

Disturbing though it is to see our President market war like a breakfast cereal, the implications of Mr. Bush’s behavior for democratic government are more disturbing still. After several prominent senators publicly questioned the President’s decision to nearly double the number of American troops in the Gulf without consulting Congress, he confronted them with excerpts from Iraqi newspapers quoting their remarks, and charged that by speaking out the senators had undermined his policy. The details of that meeting were immediately’ leaked, apparently with the aim of conveying the message that elected officials who dared to speak out against war could be publicly branded as willing to give aid and comfort to the enemy. And by maintaining that he had still not made up his mind whether or not to go to war, the President managed to blunt an attempt by Congress to organize a special session todebate a declaration of war. Congress, apparently relieved to be able to avoid debating what Representative Les As” pin called “hypothetical situations,” decided that it would just hold hearings.

However welcome the hearings, Congress’s retreat allowed the President to push forward with actions- deploying the additional two hundred thousand troops and securing a United Nations ultimatum that Iraq must relinquish Kuwait by January 15th that have severely circumscribed this country’s options: not only will it be extremely difficult to maintain such a huge force long enough for sanctions to accomplish their purpose but if the U.N. deadline that the Administration worked so hard for comes and goes and the United States does not attack Iraq, its inaction will be widely perceived as a miserable retreat.

Now, after rendering the sanctions policy difficult, if not impossible, to maintain, the President apparently hopes to confront Congress with a fait accompli. While making his perfunctory attempts to build domestic support, he was intensively lobbying the Security Council, and he clearly plans to use his hard-won resolution to pressure the members of Congress. A senior White House official told the Washington Post, “It would be hard for them to say they won’t go along with what the international community agrees is needed.” (Of course, for all the talk of a “coalition,” no member of the “international community” has deployed more than a small fraction of the men and arms the United States now has in the Gulf.) Mr. Bush has just recently promised to “consult the extra mile” with Congress, declaring himself “ready” for Congress to “endorse what the President of the United States has done and what the United Nations Security Council has done.” But he also says, “What I don’t want to do is have it come back and end up where you have four hundred thirty-five voices in one house and a hundred in the other saying what not to do, and saying kind of a hand-wringing operation that would send bad signals.”

Having demanded that Congress either endorse his actions or keep quiet, Mr. Bush announced that he was sending Secretary of State Baker to see Saddarn Hussein-not to negotiate but “to make sure he understands the commitment of the United States,” and he added, “There can be no face-saving.”

By emphasizing the nuclear issue and bluntly stating that “the status quo ante will not be enough,” the President has implied that it might not be possible to forestall war even if Hussein withdraws unconditionally from Kuwaita step that many analysts believe would cost him his rule, and perhaps his life. Meanwhile, Hussein has given no sign of backing down. According to the Times, the Hussein government is stepping up its “efforts to raise the cost in casualties of any attack on its armed forces … by fielding a numerically superior army whose total defeat can be accomplished only through a punishing and unpredictable conflict.” He undoubtedly believes, as he told the American Ambassador a few days before invading Kuwait, that America is ((a society that cannot accept ten thousand dead in one battle.”

The difficulty for President Bush is that in this instance Hussein is probably right. From the beginning, the Iraqi leader has recognized what the President has willfully ignored-that lack of domestic support is his greatest weakness. Americans, whatever their fears concerning the price of oil or the danger of nuclear weapons, have given no sign that they are ready to support a bloody war to free Kuwait. But the President has declared, “This will not be another Vietnam. I will never ever agree to a halfway effort.” It’s ironic and worrying to hear him invoking that episode in America’s history at the very moment when he is trying to ignore the country’s growing division over his policy in the Gulf. As war appears to draw closer, the voices of opposition are sure to grow louder. The President may well criticize the dissent, declaring, with some reason, that it weakens his position. The problem, however, lies not with the dissent but with a policy that unwisely counted on its absence and now deplores its existence.