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Public Support of Gulf Effort Remains Strong

Euphoria of first days gives way to sober determination as costs of war become evident

THE first week of the Gulf war, ending Wednesday night, was an emotional whipsaw of rising and falling expectations. Yet nearly everything about it went as planned and predicted. The actual progress of the allied effort inside Kuwait and Iraq remained largely invisible. The lack of bomb-damage assessments frustrated reporters and American officials themselves - according to their spokesmen.

But the sporadic evidence available indicated that the most intensive bombing campaign in history was also strikingly discreet in finding its targets, and with fewer lives lost than expected.

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Perhaps the most unexpected problem encountered by the Bush administration was ``euphoria'' - soaring public expectations after the virtually flawless high-tech spectacle of the first night. It presented a threat to public patience with the war that became apparent within days as the always-grim facts of war began to intrude on the picture.

Bush's public approval rating now stands at 84 percent, according to a CBS/New York Times survey - comparable to that of President Roosevelt immediately following Pearl Harbor.

Each day seemed to bring more, not fewer, attacks from Iraq's souped-up Scud missiles. Estimates of how many Scud launchers, and how much of Iraq's Air Force, remained intact actually grew over the weekend.

``Unusually low casualty rates early on created unrealistic expectations,'' says Al Bernstein, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.

Public opinion began to sober quickly as Saddam Hussein showed a predictability of his own. As he had warned, his first military countermove was to launch ballistic missiles at Israel.

The Scud attacks never threatened to have any military significance. They are a political weapon for Iraq, meant to invoke terror and incite Israel into joining the battle.

The political side of the Gulf war has gone somewhat better than expected, however. Israel restrained itself from playing out Saddam's script, even after three separate Scud attacks on Tel Aviv.

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As the third attack on Israel landed Tuesday afternoon, a Bush administration official said that an Israeli counterattack would no longer threaten the anti-Iraq coalition. Israel's forbearance had already made its mark. The administration scrambled to put out diplomatic fires. First in Israel, American crews were sent to man Israel's Patriot missile defense systems, the first US servicemen ever directly to help defend Israeli soil. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger headed a high-level American delegation to Israel. Mr. Eagleburger said the group would remain there for the near future to confer with the Israelis on the ``common cause'' against Iraq.

The US never received assurances that Israel would not retaliate, says a senior American official, it only had ongoing consultations to try to keep the Israelis persuaded.

The president also sent former Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage as a special envoy to Jordan on Sunday out of concern that Jordan would be drawn into the war in defense of its air space. Jordan falls directly between Iraq and Israel.

President Bush himself spends most of his time on the Gulf crisis - roughly 70 to 80 percent, his aides estimate. His press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, describes him as ``pensive and fairly preoccupied.'' The television in the president's study is always on these days for catching the latest news. Other White House business, such as the upcoming State of the Union address, serves Bush as a respite from attending to the Persian Gulf, according to Mr. Fitzwater.

``This is on his mind quite a bit of the time,'' he says.

The last time Bush was awakened in the night was at 3 a.m. Saturday, when the second volley of Scuds hit Israel. Bush telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir twice that day.

The president is active in Gulf diplomacy, but he is leaving the day-to-day management of military strategy to the military.

One decision Bush is likely to make himself is when to launch ground forces into Kuwait. This is the war Saddam is waiting to fight, in which casualties on the American side would be expected to rise.

Under the Aspin scenario, the land war could begin in early February, but the air campaign would be given a full opportunity to run its course first.

The war has already shifted to bombing attacks on Iraq's elite Republican Guard, the core of Saddam's forces. A Department of Defense analyst speculates that ground forces will be used only after the air campaign has essentially beaten the Iraqi Army, as a mop-up operation.

One of the striking aspects of the Gulf war to Americans with memories of the 1960s and 1970s is the sheer spectacle of such a massive American operation running so well. The heroes of the war's first week were the Patriot antimissile missiles. By Wednesday morning, they had let only one of more than a dozen Scud missiles get past them.

``You get the sense there's been a real learning curve since, say, Desert One,'' says Dr. Bernstein, referring to the April 1980 attempt to rescue hostages from Iran that was grounded in the Iranian desert.

Polls show public support of American Gulf policy running between 75 and 80 percent. But the number of people who expect the war to last a month or longer has increased, according to a USA Today poll, from 43 percent a week ago to 74 percent on Sunday.

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