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GULF WAR RAISES DOUBTS ABOUT MIDEAST POLICY

SHARE GULF WAR RAISES DOUBTS ABOUT MIDEAST POLICY

On the first anniversary of the gulf war we see that the war triggered a burst of triumphalism that was self-refuting: If that war, in which the United States and a largely rented and Potemkin coalition of allies smashed a nation with the GNP of Kentucky, could, as was then said, make America "feel good about itself," then America should not feel good about itself. Twelve months later, it doesn't.

The war, which had many rationales in the run-up to it, seemed, in the aftermath, to have been intended therapeutically. It was supposed to banish "the Vietnam syndrome," meaning doubt about America's ability to project force effectively. It was also supposed to rekindle American confidence, technological and governmental. A tall order for a short war.The war is the jewel in the crown of Bush's foreign policy, which is his strong suit. But how strong?

The military performed well in the war. However, it will not do anything similar any time soon. Deficit-driven defense cuts that have already been agreed to, and other cuts coming, are incompatible with such a large, quick operation. Desert Storm was an unrepeatable use of vanishing Cold War capabilities.

The war diplomacy has left lingering anxieties about sovereignty and constitutionality, and about the process and substance of Bush's foreign policy.

Although the war was a demonstration of U.S. military strength, a lasting political consequence may be weakness, a disabling dilution of U.S. sovereignty. Bush made U.S. policy subservient to the United Nations at a moment when the U.N. was pleased to be subservient to the United States. But there may come a time when the United States will be held hostage to a Desert Storm legacy, the idea that the legitimacy of U.S. force is directly proportional to the number of nations condoning it.

As Desert Shield began and became Desert Storm, its rationale was given variously as: the defense of Saudi Arabia; or restoration of the Kuwait regime (with the help of our new ally, Syria, which has done to Lebanon approximately what Iraq did to Kuwait); or preservation of the regional balance of power; or preventing the moral equivalent of Hitler (war crimes trials were hinted) from getting nuclear weapons. Each rationale was better than the impression Bush gave of improvising rationales.

The war reflected Bush's penchant for personalizing foreign policy, in several senses. He believes less in the steady interests of nations than the personal relations between leaders. And he tends to translate his visceral feelings into policies.

The war displayed Bush at his best, but it is a problematic best.

He is happiest when dealing with foreign policy because then he is dealing with a few foreign leaders and he does not need to muster the patience and persuasion required in the domestic politics of our turbulent democracy. He has reversed the advice in George Washington's farewell address: he avoids domestic entanglements. His impatience with domestic problems and institutions is the obverse of the pleasure he derives from dealing with the international nomenklatura that conducts the game of nations.

Desert Storm was supposed to serve a new world order, but Bush has not seriously tried to translate Kuwait's moral debt to America into something truly new - an Arab democracy. Instead, Bush's itch to tidy up the Middle East has translated into an adversarial relationship between America and the only democracy in the region, Israel.

There is, to say no more, room for argument about foreign policy - Bush's strong suit, such as it is - in the coming campaign.