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Bush needs to prepare public for gulf fighting

Much as he would like to keep them separate, President Bush cannot insulate his Persian Gulf policy from the troubles he faces on the home front with Congress, the budget and the economy. Public support for the hard-line stance against Iraq has been dropping in every poll, tugged downward by the severe damage Bush suffered when he delayed in taking command of the deficit problem at a moment when fears of recession and inflation were mounting.

Far more worrisome is the fact that the Persian Gulf problem is now moving to a stage which will require Bush to do well the very thing he failed to do at all in the budget situation _ prepare public opinion for hard choices.

The use of force has been implicit from the start in the deployment of 200,000 American troops, at the center of an international force, in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding waters. But unless Hussein attacks, or provides some other provocation, the resort to force will have to be explained and justified to the American people and their elected representatives.

Last week, a senior foreign-policy official, who told reporters "there is no evidence Saddam is ready to cry uncle" because of the embargo, said that if the president decides military force must be applied, "it cannot come from the blue. You would have to prepare the way for it politically."

Bush has done an effective job of explaining and justifying the massive military deployment, on grounds of both national security and international law.

But as the senior official readily conceded, "He hasn't given people a sense that fighting is imminent. He'd have to prepare people more for the military option. It cannot be a total surprise, much as the military people might prefer it that way."

I would like to believe that is an authoritative statement of the White House view, but it was not the attitude that prevailed in the budget struggle. Many factors contributed to the mishandling of that situation and the political damage all the participants suffered. But important as anything was Bush's unwillingness to prepare public opinion for the pain any serious deficit reduction would entail.

He was asked by many to do that. But instead of explaining things to the public as the budget negotiations were starting last May, Bush decided to delay the explanation of the severity of the problem until after the fact. He preferred to present the voters with a fait accompli _ a budget agreement _ rather than prepare public opinion for the costly and painful action that lay ahead.

That decision was a major factor in the House's rejection early this month of a bipartisan budget agreement that had been almost six months in the making. As House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., observed, "You cannot reverse eight years of rosy rhetoric with one eight-minute speech." And that failure caused Bush the worst political embarrassment of his presidency.

If he does the same thing and fails to prepare the people for the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf, the damage to him and the country will be far worse.

Washington Post Writers Group