GEORGE BUSH has laid claim to the moral high ground in a new, happier world order as he bids to consolidate support at home for his Persian Gulf policy. In his most important speech so far as president Tuesday Sept. 11, he evoked a world view that would have pleased an earlier United States president - the one who called World War I the ``war to end wars.''
``This could have been Woodrow Wilson speaking about collective security and defending against aggression,'' notes University of California Los Angeles historian Robert Dallek.
But Mr. Bush's idealism was not above a political jab or two at congressional Democrats.
In calling for the US to get its own house in order with a federal deficit-cutting deal, he pitched for a cut in the capital-gains tax - a highly partisan and divisive point of contention in budget talks.
``He tried to get the benefit of this patriotic enthusiasm for a very narrow partisan policy,'' says Jeffrey Tulis, a University of Texas political scientist.
Bush presented the response to Iraqi aggression in Kuwait as a lesson for other potential aggressors.
``Had we not responded to this provocation with clarity of purpose, if we do not continue to demonstrate our determination, it would be a signal to actual and potential despots around the world,'' he warned.
``This is the first assault on the new world that we seek,'' he said at another point.
Bush's Wilsonian approach was apparent in his stress on the United Nations and other nations, including the Soviet Union, to share US goals in this crisis. The phrase ``America and the world ...'' began many of his sentences.
He put the principle of defending against aggression clearly ahead of America's all-too-apparent economic interest in the Gulf. ``There was no more talk about the `American way of life,''' notes Ohio University diplomatic historian John Gaddis.
Bush had earlier used this term as a vague reference to the threat of higher oil prices on the economy.
``I think what's fascinating about the current situation is that even the Russians are sounding Wilsonian,'' Dr. Gaddis says.
But US experts are skeptical that the Soviets share American goals in the Middle East, in spite of the general harmony of the Helsinki summit Sept. 9.
Bush himself cast the US-Soviet partnership in putting down regional instabilities in cautious terms - as a promising direction rather than a full-blown reality. Yet, he said Tuesday night, ``Clearly, no longer can a dictator count on East-West confrontation to stymie concerted United Nation action against aggression.''
Expert opinion found Bush more comfortable, forthright, and even dramatic than in his previous three prime-time televised addresses as president.
One of Bush's most often noted weaknesses as president is his inability to address the nation directly in a persuasive and presidential style. He has difficulty finding a voice for propounding deeply felt values - a voice that came easily to President Reagan. Bush seemed to overcome that Tuesday. One reason was the strong and visible support he received from the joint session of Congress he was addressing directly. He may also have been more comfortable than usual with the strength of his message.
Bush not preaching Wilson
``I think what's so appealing about this crisis is that sense of rectitude. People feel comfortable with the sense of being in the right,'' Mr. Dallek says.
Bush does not quite approach the moralism of Wilson who founded the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.
``What's encouraging is that the US is not trying to go out and preach as Wilson himself tended to,'' Gaddis says.
Dr. Tulis says he believes that Bush has not elevated the rationale for US gulf policy into moral principle, either. The moral element came in a personal form, he notes - the evil ways of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
``What emerges from this speech is really [national] interest as a principle,'' Tulis says.