By William Raspberry
Washington Post
Wednesday, January 23, 1991; Page A17

I've just visited Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, trying to understand what motivates the drum-beating, chanting, sign-waving antiwar protesters camped out there.

I still don't get it.

A couple of weeks ago, it made sense to protest President Bush's apparent determination to launch a war against Iraq. Even many of those who accepted the notion of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the embodiment of international evil still thought war was a bad idea, or at least thought it vital not to start shooting until every reasonable alternative had been exhausted.

Even a week ago, it made sense to communicate to Bush the idea that as bad as Saddam is, war is worse -- not merely because war kills but also because this particular war seemed certain to leave nothing settled in the Persian Gulf region and likely to make matters a good deal worse.

I understood the prewar protesters. And at least to some degree, I understand the pacifists among the few hundred demonstrators. What I don't understand -- even after talking to a number of them -- are the people who are protesting continued U.S. involvement in this particular war after the war has started.

They wish Bush had shown more willingness to explore a nonmilitary solution to the problem posed by Saddam's annexation of Kuwait, and so do I. I still think it might have been possible to fashion some international forum for negotiating the whole range of issues plaguing the region -- the menace of Iraq's fledgling nuclear capability, the restoration of Kuwait, the continued availability of oil, the security of Israel, the Palestinian problem -- without resort to war.

I still think it would have been in America's interest to allow Saddam some reasonably graceful escape from the box in which he had trapped himself. It seemed that every time there appeared a crack through which Saddam might escape, there was Bush nailing a board over it. Our president told us he wanted a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but his behavior went the other way. No negotiation of the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait that existed before the Aug. 2 invasion, no international conference to discuss the other issues (and thereby afford Saddam an opportunity to undo his mistake), no linkage: only threats and unconditional demands and deadlines.

But that was before the war started. Now that it has, what is the goal of the antiwar protesters? What would they have the president do -- declare a cease-fire and quit the region?

The people I spoke with were unanimous in their view that peace is better than war, but not at all clear that their continuing protest offers no policy alternative that makes sense. They evinced no appreciation of the fact that to suspend military operations now would only help Saddam, who certainly would claim that he had defeated the alliance arrayed against him; that it would endanger our troops, our interests and the prospects for long-term peace.

Some compared the present situation -- inappropriately, I thought -- to Vietnam. Others said the conflict was only about oil or that the politics of the region were none of our business. Still others responded with "give peace a chance" and other '60s-style slogans. None seemed to notice that the Iraqi president had displayed even less interest than his American counterpart in proposals (from interests as varied as France and the PLO) for an international conference. America should just get out, they said.

I didn't argue, but it did seem to me that their position is more likely to prolong the fighting and endanger our fighting forces than to bring an end to the conflict. And it still seems to me that the time has come when protest must give way to support.

An analogy comes to mind. You can warn your daughter to take every precaution against pregnancy. You can do what you can to help her understand the long-term implications of child bearing -- how it would strain relations with her friends, limit her opportunities and options, and require the allocation of resources that might be put to other uses.

But once the baby is born, warning against pregnancy makes no sense. Far better to do what you can to limit the damage and make sure the baby turns out well.