The New Campaigns : POLITICS : If Politics Were Waged Like War

William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

"War is nothing but politics by other means," Karl von Clausewitz wrote in 1833. To which Americans say, "Bullhockey!" Americans resoundingly reject the notion that war is politics. That was the lesson of Vietnam. It's also the lesson of the Persian Gulf.

The Persian Gulf proved to Americans that, if we just let the military fight the war, they can get the job done. Last week, Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his appreciation to the President for not trying to micro-manage the war. President George Bush echoed these sentiments in his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, when he said, "We cannot lead a new world abroad if, at home, it's politics-as-usual on American defense and diplomacy."

Vietnam was a political war. Politicians placed strict limits on what could and could not be done. The Gulf War was a military war. The military was given a mandate to win a total victory as quickly and efficiently as possible. They did.

"By God," Bush said on March 1, "we've kicked the Vietnam War syndrome once and for all." Sure enough, the Gulf War ended with Marine helicopters landing on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait--a dramatic contrast with the image from 1975, of U.S. helicopters evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

The American view of war is shaped by two deeply rooted characteristics of American culture--moralism and pragmatism. Our religious tradition, basically Protestant and pietistic, creates a powerful strain of moralism in our public life. That's why Americans distrust politics. Politics is the art of the possible. Morality is the art of the right. There had to be a moral justification for this war, and Bush provided one. We weren't fighting for oil. We were fighting for principles--freedom, self-determination and a new world order.

Month after month last fall, Bush was asked to explain why we were in the Persian Gulf. He never came up with a coherent explanation. Every time he was asked, he just added another reason to the laundry list. But Americans sensed that, for Bush, the explanation was not intellectual. It was moral. We were in the Gulf to defend values, not interests.

Those values were on full display Wednesday, when Bush recalled the scene of Iraqi troops surrendering to U.S. soldiers, who reassured them, "It's OK. You're all right now. You'll be all right."

"That scene says a lot about America, a lot about who we are," the President said, his voice breaking. "Americans are a caring people. We are a good people, a generous people. Let us always be caring and good and generous in all we do." And suddenly, we remembered what we liked about Bush. It is not his vision. It is his strength of character.

American culture is also pragmatic. If you need to solve a problem, whatever works is right. Just get the job done. And don't let politics get in the way. War is a strategic and technological exercise best left to the professionals who know how to get the job done.

"Violence is necessary," H. Rap Brown once said. "It is as American as cherry pie." He was right. We tolerate more violence than any other civilized society. More crime, organized and disorganized. More guns. More capital punishment. A violent history of race relations and labor relations. More violence in our entertainment. Why? Because violence gets the job done. Ask Dirty Harry.

Bush accepted what Pentagon planners called "the doctrine of invincible force" in the Gulf. First, we staged an overwhelming show of strength to persuade the enemy to capitulate. When that didn't work, we went after the enemy with everything we had. "This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war," the President promised last November. The war lasted 42 days, including 100 hours of ground fighting; 90 Americans were killed. The Vietnam War lasted 10 years; 47,358 Americans were killed.

Bush was George of Arabia as he stood before Congress last week. In fact, during the 25 months of Bush's presidency, the United States has won not one war, but two. We won the Cold War in 1989 without firing a shot.

Just in time to spoil the celebration, Bush's fellow Republicans decided it was time to politicize the war. They wore big yellow buttons during Bush's speech that said, "I voted with the President." The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a mailing that referred to "appeasement-before-country liberals." Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), said, "I think we're going to be hearing in the next few days and weeks from the Democrats that the President has not made his domestic agenda clear. I'd just like to remind you that that's exactly what they were saying about the President's policy in the Gulf."

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the House minority whip, chimed in: "If General Schwarzkopf had to report to the Democratic Congress, we'd still be unloading the first five tanks and debating over which way they should point."

Gramm and Gingrich are realignment junkies. They are frustrated over the fact that popular support for Republican Presidents has never translated into Republican control of Congress. Right now, Bush has a record-high approval rating--90%. Republicans have reached parity with the Democrats in the polls.

But what's the rush? The 1992 election is 20 months away. There'll be plenty of opportunity to see taped replays of speeches by Democrats opposing the war. Rest assured, Republicans will runs ads showing Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz thanking members of Congress for voting against the war. Lots of ads.

Right now, such recriminations are not only distasteful; they could create a backlash against the GOP. What the voters liked best about the war was that politics was kept out of it. Americans want to celebrate the mood of national unity and confidence. They don't want to trivialize the war by making it partisan.

Last week, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) denounced Republicans for "poisoning our national politics and dishonoring a debate in this chamber that was in our finest traditions."

The Democrats want to join in the victory celebration--and apply the new spirit of public purpose to the domestic agenda. They sense the public's growing frustration over the gap between foreign and domestic policy. Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D-W.Va.) declared the Gulf War "sets a new standard for people to judge government by." He explained that in the Middle East, "Government set a goal, mobilized half-a-million people and moved more materiel than at any time since World War II. Why can't you do the same thing in education, in infrastructure, in health care?"

The answer is: politics. There was great irony in the fact that, the very day we won the war, the Senate Ethics Committee, after 14 months of deliberation, announced it could find no evidence of wrongdoing in the behavior of four out of the "Keating Five" senators. A joke made the rounds of Washington: "The good news is, we've got Saddam Hussein and we're going to try him for war crimes. The bad news is, he's going to be tried by the Senate Ethics Committee."

According to the Gallup poll, 85% of Americans express confidence in the military. Only 30% express confidence in Congress. The war didn't increase confidence in the political process. It generated confidence in how much we could achieve outside the political process. All voters have to do is compare the experience of winning the war with the experience of passing a budget last October.

The budget fight turned so many voters off that a remarkable thing happened in the Nov. 6 election: House incumbents of both political parties lost support. The election was a warning: Voters are sick of politics-as-usual. The Gulf War only reinforces those sentiments.

As a result, next year is likely to be a good year for outsiders to run for office. Both parties will be scouring the ranks of returning veterans to find "war heroes" to nominate. It should be noted that almost one of four U.S. Presidents has been a general--41 Presidents, 10 generals. Democrats take note: The only public figure whose popularity matches that of Bush is Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

DR, RANDY LYHUS / For The Times

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