Historical Certainties


I write on January 15, the eve, most of us believe, of battle in the Persian Gulf. You read this weeks later, knowing, if not how things turned out, then at least how they started.

It is a strange time, this countdown to war, a time of anticipation and of uncertainty. We wonder what will happen, when, how it will end, what it will mean. And, most of all, we wonder whether the undertaking is right or wrong, wise or imprudent.

I am struck by the certainty with which other writers proclaim their views. How do they know that we must attack and attack and attack until Saddam Hussein is gone? Or, how are they so sure that Hussein's ambitions pose no real threat to the United States? Perhaps they have come reluctantly to their opinions, only to state them boldly. ("Sin boldly," said Martin Luther, a good motto for editorialists.) Or do they simply refuse to consider seriously the risks of their positions?

Some propositions, I believe, are indeed certain: that free people cannot be secure in a world where pirates go unchallenged; that centrally planning a "new world order" is as impossible as centrally planning an economy; that enabling the freely arising world order—of international trade and worldwide communications and free movement of individuals—requires a notion of rights, and of citizenship, that transcends mere geography; that the Middle East is a foreign and violent place, inhospitable to liberalism and from time immemorial prone to war; that the ease and effectiveness of "surgical strikes" is grossly exaggerated; that the international arena is a state of nature in which the evil and the ambitious must often be resisted by force of arms; and that, in this arena, there are no pure solutions and no "good wars," only uncertain and often unpleasant choices.

These convictions offer little guidance in the current situation, for they point in contradictory directions. The president makes much of United Nations resolutions. But international law based on the support of such internally and externally lawless nations as Ethiopia and Syria means little. This is no way to a meaningful world order, certainly no way to a world order based on liberty.

And Saudi Arabia would definitely be on the short list of "countries least deserving of defense by the United States." Kuwait may have been a monarchy, but Saudi Arabia is far worse—a state that exercises control over every aspect of life, that respects no individual rights or free institutions. It is a state that repeatedly returns U.S. favors with contempt—whether by keeping OPEC's cartel alive or by treating U.S. soldiers as mere hired hands. Assuming a U.S. victory in the Gulf, we can expect neither gratitude nor liberalization from the Saudis.

On the other hand, those who scorn international law and international endeavors, who advocate a return to an America First policy, are equally unconvincing. Not to act is to act. Not to challenge expansionist tyrants is to encourage them to expand farther.

Unless we are to be truly isolationist—not merely in security matters but in trade and travel as well—Americans will have interests, sometimes vital interests, beyond our borders. Since the freedoms we cherish include the freedoms to travel, to do business, even to live abroad—and since modern weapons can travel thousands of miles, anyway—we must choose between true isolation and at least some involvement in foreign affairs. The small world we celebrate when we speak of global markets, of faxes and fiber optics, of the movement of people to freer climes, is a world that demands that we respond to threats as well as opportunities.

People of many different opinions try to derive foreign-policy prescriptions from first principles. To be true to our principles, some proclaim, we must export democracy or, say others, we must ignore the world outside our borders. We must be consistent.

This is an attractive, but false, proposition. From first principles, one may conclude only that the government must act in the interests of the governed. What those interests are, and how best to further them, remains unknown. Ultimately, we make decisions about foreign policy—both collectively and individually—based on prudence, on history, and on personal world views. The decisions we make are necessarily as subjective as our understanding of the world. And in that understanding, the history we have seen ourselves is often more primary than we, seeking universally applicable rules, would like to acknowledge.

In early December, I appeared on a C-Span call-in show with an editor from The Nation. Despite our ideological differences, we had one major thing in common: We were both born in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. This infuriated two of the callers. They informed us in no uncertain terms that we couldn't possibly understand the threat Saddam Hussein poses if we couldn't remember World War II. The lessons of Munich, and of Ethiopia, they said, were the lessons of history. Hussein must be stopped now, before it's too late.

I hear similar, though diametrically opposed, judgments in the arguments of those who, remembering Vietnam, counsel nonintervention. In both cases, the counsel may be informed by ideology, by analysis, or by knowledge of the Middle East. But there is an emotional resonance that goes beyond objective analysis.

It is from this subjective base that people derive their certainties—and their greatest fears. While Vietnam was an ever-present fact of my childhood, it will never have the emotional resonance for me that its aftermath does. The sense of a world out of control, of people hanging on helicopter blades and oil embargoes, of hostages in Iran and Soviet troops sweeping into Afghanistan, is one that will forever inform the world views of people my age. When I was a sophomore in college, the school paper's joke issue featured a lead story announcing that the Soviets had moved into Iran and Carter had declared war on the Soviet Union. Many students believed it.

Now, the Cold War apparently ended and a hot war about to start, I still have a visceral sense that freedom and security can be preserved only through strength and resolve. I have supported U.S. actions in the Gulf, though not without serious doubts.

Last night I spoke with my 20-year-old brother, who, but for an ill-timed shoulder dislocation, would be at the Air Force Academy instead of N.C. State. The war, he says, is on everyone's mind. He heard a guy returning books the other day, having received orders to report for duty. They are worried about a draft—not so much for himself, my brother said, since he may still volunteer, but for those like his roommate who don't approve.

My brother's generation will learn its certainties in the next few months. I pray they will not be bitter ones.