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The Stakes for Thatcher and Bush

TWO of the world's leaders, Margaret Thatcher and George Bush, have been observed in the midst of decisionmaking in recent days. Mrs. Thatcher, the model of fortitude for more than a decade as Britain's prime minister, has decided to step aside. Mr. Bush, having just raised the ante on American troop presence near Kuwait, is still deciding whether, and if so when, to unleash an assault on Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces. Decisions may not be what they appear to be. They are usually the result of a process, not the act of a moment. ``Decisions just happen,'' observes Theodore Levitt, former editor of the Harvard Business Review, in his new book ``Thinking About Management.'' ``They are seldom made affirmatively or decisively. Mostly they emerge gradually - from analyses, observations, comparisons, discussions, and the passage of time.''

A corollary is that, however much we make decision out to be a rational, deliberative process, it is character, or the ``inner self,'' that decides. Again Levitt: ``It is the inner self that decides all things, regardless of age, gender, education, or affiliation, whether at home, play, work, or in service.''

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It is this effect of context on events, the pondering and discussion and waiting for new evidence, and ultimately the play of the individual leader's instincts, honed by experience, on these circumstances, that makes public affairs so fascinating.

Mrs. Thatcher's decision to step aside was not caused simply by Michael Heseltine's nearly successful challenge for the Conservative Party leadership a week ago. Mrs. Thatcher could not have been daunted by the thought of personal defeat.

In one sense, she has had her day as prime minister. Mr. Heseltine's challenge was but one indication of this. She had faced down the Argentinians in the Falklands, the coal miners, Labor - virtually everybody who had opposed her. She privatized whole industries. She has been one of the most successful leaders of our time. She represented spine to a country that was seen as having lost its competitiveness. She relished debate; she excelled at repartee during the question period, when the prime minister's policies are challenged from every corner of the House of Commons floor. She was secure in the use of the British people's great civilizing power, the English language.

But times are changing. Britain must make adjustments to the new Europe. Years of restructuring Britain's economy has driven many into unemployment. Her party could face defeat by Labor.

This is no defeat for Margaret Thatcher. Another Conservative leader, likely the young John Major, would offer a new face, the promise of a reconsidered direction, for her party. While her personal role would change, her party would have a stronger chance to stay in power. However it might appear to outsiders, her stepping aside was but another refusal to be put down.

Mr. Bush too can be congratulated. His swift airlift of US troops halted Saddam at the Saudi border. He has gathered world opinion against Saddam. The UN has found new life in this process. However the Gulf events play out, other would-be aggressors will have to think twice before acting. Bush's Thanksgiving visit with the troops in Saudi Arabia showed a man comfortable with himself. Saddam should not underestimate him.

Circumstances, meanwhile, grind away. War could instantly involve Israel. The cost in lives and productivity could be frightful. Already the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the region by countries like India and Egypt is working hardship. Bush will keep the pressure on. Discussions will continue.

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Bush appears motivated by the simple axiom ``An aggressor must pay.'' The terms of Saddam's penalty are not set. Bush is responding to the force of an American ideal, its sense of its role in world affairs. Yet he is a family man and must know the value of individual lives.

Thus both circumstance and character are producing high drama and high stakes for the leaders of two great countries.

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