GEORGE BUSH has drawn his line in the searing sands of Saudi Arabia, and his presidency and a good part of the industrialized world's prosperity depends on the outcome. Bush's opponent, Saddam Hussein, is a thoroughly unpleasant desert despot, with a penchant for using chemical weapons and an apparent lack of human decency. (One knowledgeable American official tells me that President Hussein personally executed one of his cabinet ministers he considered ineffective. Hussein has also issued directives providing that the families of executed army deserters be billed for the bullets used in carrying out the sentences).
But though Hussein represents the forces of evil in his invasion of Kuwait, we cannot pretend that the confrontation between the US and Iraq is alone a crusade on behalf of sweet liberty. Some of the oil-rich sheiks of the Middle East are hardly paragons of democracy and morality. Saudi Arabia itself, on behalf of which we are ready to spill American blood, is a feudal monarchy where the rights of women are slender and which, initially at least, dictatorially banned American journalists from entering the country with American troops.
Moreover, there are other areas of the world where a tyrant could invade a neighboring mini-country without provoking the dispatch of thousands of American combat troops.
The difference here is oil, the lifeblood of the industrialized world. The issue is who is to control it, and who is to set its price. Without oil at an acceptable price, the industrialized world would be thrown into chaos. That issue is understood throughout the world and it has given George Bush a remarkably supportive constituency as he moved so swiftly in his power struggle with Saddam Hussein.
According to the polls, some 75 percent of Americans support the president's policy on Iraq and his dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia. Congress has rallied to his side.
Abroad he has the support of Western Europe. The Japanese, so anxious to become players on the international political scene, but so timid about making decisions of involvement, have this time condemned Iraq. The Soviets, who understand that the prosperity of the West is essential to the prosperity of the Soviet Union, are shoulder to shoulder with Washington. Even much of the Arab world has spoken out against Saddam Hussein, for the Arabs too know that who controls the oil controls the Arab world. An Arab world led by Saddam Hussein is a fearsome prospect.
Millions of Americans who probably would have as much difficulty pinpointing Saudi Arabia on the map as Thatcher-supporting Britons did in pinpointing the Falklands, nevertheless approve Bush's dispatch of his armada to the alien Arabian deserts.
Thus if Saddam Hussein is the Hitler of the 1990s, George Bush has proved that he is no Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who tried to avert World War II by acceding to Hitler's demands.
How long will this support for Bush last? What will be the mettle of the American people if Saudi Arabia threatens to become another Vietnam? If the answers to these questions are uncertain, George Bush had better keep his economic, political, and military blitzkrieg against Saddam Hussein moving forward with maximum momentum.
On the economic and political fronts, he is doing rather well. On the military front, he is vulnerable to the unpredictability and ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein. If intelligence sources predict an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, or a thrust against Israel through Jordan, George Bush should not shrink from the pre-emptive strike against such targets as Iraq's chemical-weapons producing factories. Public opinion supports it. The importance of oil justifies it.