Unmaking Myths


Francis Fukuyama says the Persian Gulf crisis doesn't prove we've returned to history, as he and Hegel define it. But when you're sending troops to the land of Mohammed to confront the ruler of Babylon, it looks like history to the rest of us.

This first encounter with post–Cold War history will do much to define the way Americans think about foreign policy—and about the role of open societies in a world filled with closed and violent ones—for decades. Already, we are seeing evidence that some cherished myths are less true than we once imagined.

Myth number one: "The open society is its own worst enemy. Democracies fail." This is the hardest myth to give up, the belief that the world's bullies really are big, tough, and inevitably victorious. We cherish our freedom and proclaim its superiority. But always there is that nagging doubt: When it comes to a struggle, won't we lose? After all, dictators can just do whatever they want—no Congress, no media, no polls, no demonstrations…Wouldn't it be better if we would all get with the program, all march in the same direction, all be more like Iraqis?

Well, no. Winning the Cold War ought to be Exhibit A in the case for self-esteem. It turns out that the messy individualism of free societies is more a strength than a weakness. Not only can they outproduce their autocratic adversaries, but over the long run they also do a better job at making policy. They can change their minds without executing anyone; all that happened to Jimmy Carter was an embarrassing electoral defeat. Our politics are as adaptable as our economies.

Consider the relative positions of Saddam Hussein and George Bush, and it becomes clear why it's easier for Bush to take a vacation. Neither Colin Powell nor Dan Quayle will try to seize power in his absence.

Then there's the question of advice. When some of his officers suggested that invading Kuwait might not be such a wise move, Saddam Hussein had them killed. Yet it seems inarguable that even Hussein's territorial ambitions would have been well served by counsel to stay cool and wait a few years.

By contrast, American presidents get plenty of advice—more than they often want. For the most part, they can count on the sincerity, if not the wisdom, of the advice givers. Even those with one eye on the polls and another on the TV cameras have, in some sense, the country's interests at heart. And the cacophony of views encouraged by a free press and a competitive politics means that most options, and most pitfalls, get discussed.

This process of advice and dissent makes some people nervous. They fear that talking too much about what the United States should do in the world makes it hard to act decisively. If the president is inclined toward indecision, that may be true. But not all advisers urge forbearance.

Nor is forbearance synonymous with indecision. Indeed, the deluge of punditry urging an immediate bombing attack on Iraq—in the foolish belief that we could just bomb Saddam back to the Bronze Age and go home—is driven by the fear that the American people will get restless and won't have the patience for a drawn-out confrontation.

This brings us to myth number two: "America lacks staying power." As The New Republic's editors write, "These Arabs had to have been dismayed by the observation of the U.S. commander in the Gulf, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, that 'there is not going to be any war unless the Iraqis attack.' If that is truly American policy, they fear, the Iraqis will simply time their next move until after the Americans get tired and go home. Once home, Hussein knows, G.I. Joe won't come back. And he will get tired.…Better on all counts to have gotten this matter over with quickly—which is to say militarily, by strikes against Baghdad's infrastructure of mass terror."

The issue of staying power is at the heart of a lot of self-doubts. But the United States has had troops in Europe for 49 years, first fighting a hellish war, then acting as a tripwire for global Armageddon. If that's not staying power, I don't know what is.

The truth is, Americans are awfully patient, especially when nobody's getting killed. (If anything, we're too patient; surely the Koreans can manage without us.) The United States is winner and world champ at fighting cold wars.

People like TNR's editors are actually worried about hot wars. If we'd just drop some bombs, they seem to believe, we could get in and out before anybody realized how horrifying wars are. Aside from the naiveté of assuming that bombers can topple a government as easily as they can take out a nuclear power plant, this urge to fool the public is short-sighted.

The public finds out, if not from the media then from the body bags. And if you haven't been straight with people—about goals as well as tactics—you have a real problem. Support at home will wither, just as the pundits predict. And there is always the possibility that the troops should come home, that the country shouldn't stick with intervention merely to prove a point.

Myth number three: "The press is the enemy." A corollary to myths one and two, this idea springs from the "living room war" experience of Vietnam. To a large degree, however, people were startled by Vietnam because they had been insulated from that ancient truth—that wars, even "good wars" fought by good men, are hell—and because nobody credibly explained what the point was. Having gone through the shock of rediscovery, people are now far more equipped to realistically assess the likely costs and potential benefits of military action.

Sam Donaldson may make a fool of himself in the Saudi desert, but the ability to reveal what's going on—and to make people who cover up look bad—works in favor of U.S. efforts, as long as those efforts in fact express Americans' values. Saddam's inept attempts to manipulate the media have backfired. Putting hostages on TV hasn't made people eager to capitulate; it's made them mad.

And Iraq's refusal to let reporters into Kuwait or to let journalists talk with hostages casts doubt on whatever its representatives say. For Iraq's ambassador to tell Ted Koppel that journalists will of course be welcome to visit Kuwait "in due time" is to confess to atrocities.

Back before Saddam Hussein was daily news, he gave Diane Sawyer a bizarre interview. In it, he kept insisting that, just as in Iraq, it's a crime for Americans to insult their president. Finally, Sawyer politely informed Hussein that people who insult the president of the United States not only don't go to jail, "they get their own television shows."

It may be exasperating for presidents to tolerate Sam Donaldson, but they have an advantage over the world's Husseins. They're harder to take by surprise.