Loyal Allies Protect Their Purses...

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 20, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS — Paris. PRESIDENT George Bush's address to Congress last week was quite like old times, almost forgotten times. United States and United Nations stand together to halt aggression, defend international law and order, bring into being ''a new era, free from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace.'' Mr. Bush went on: ''A new world is struggling to be born.''

The rhetoric bore the marks of Wilsonian and Rooseveltian idealism. The promised commitment of the U.S. to shape this ''new era,'' Mr. Bush's reiterated promises that aggression will be punished and Iraq forced to unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, his claim that ''there is no substitute for American leadership,'' recall words spoken in the 1940s and early 1950s, the time of the Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine and Korean intervention.

Mr. Bush has unexpectedly found in the Persian Gulf crisis the opportunity to redefine American foreign policy in the aftermath of Cold War, offering it new direction. He does so in language with the rhetorical resonance of the past. But his new policy lacks a commitment of national resources to sustain it, and it is not one the international community is prepared to accept.

It probably lacks majority support at home. Mr. Bush's gulf intervention has rekindled the oldest and most basic American debate about foreign policy, that of isolationists versus interventionists. In the past that debate mainly divided Republicans from Democrats (although there were ''progressive'' Republican interventionists and Southern Democratic isolationists).

Now, with American liberals marginalized, the argument goes on inside the Republican Party, with neo-conservatives in the part liberals used to play, calling for global engagement in support of democracy, and reactionary conservatives (if I can call them that) defending a national isolationism they abandoned in the 1950s only in the anti-communist cause.

Much can be said in support of Mr. Bush's conduct in the gulf. Its methods have been intelligent and its diplomacy expert. Its objectives are admirable in principle. Whether they are attainable at acceptable cost remains to be seen. Begun well, the affair could end badly.

By proposing a new international policy that generalizes the international mobilization against aggression that has been accomplished in the gulf, Mr. Bush opens himself to the accusation that he is -- probably without serious reflection -- exploiting the crisis to address, yet obfuscate, the painful

question of American ''decline.''

American policy in the gulf is presented by Mr. Bush as a dramatic forward step in international cooperation and American leadership. Yet the fact is that it has been accompanied by the demand that other countries finance what the United States does but is unprepared to pay for. This signals dependence, not authority. It does not sound like leadership, but like an offer of soldiers for hire.

The U.S. cannot realistically expect other nations to pay to be led in a direction they do not wish to go. That is the second problem. Washington's difficulties with Germany and Japan, who have failed to contribute important sums to the gulf effort, comes part from domestic political circumstances in both countries, but also from a larger reluctance by the allies to accept America's definitions of world problems and how to handle them. This was expressed in the European Community's refusal to contribute to U.S. gulf costs.

Neither Japan nor the European governments, Britain's possibly excepted, wanted this huge U.S. military deployment in the gulf. They favored the embargo. Given the American military fait accompli, they have been willing to commit forces in solidarity with the U.S. They will help refugees and the Islamic states who have sent troops or who suffer from the embargo. But they are seriously uneasy about where all this will end.

The more belligerent members of Congress and the press already are calling this weakness or cowardice. In fact it follows from those allied governments' belief in the market mechanisms of capitalism. They assume that in peacetime oil flows to its markets, whoever controls the oil wells. They are perhaps mistaken, but they believe it of little consequence to them who rules Kuwait.

They believe that Iraq's invasion of that country, or anything Iraq might have done to Saudi Arabia, cannot change the fact that Iraq depends on selling its oil just as much as the United States, Europe and Japan depend on buying it. The market sets the price. If Iraq attempted to set a politically motivated price for oil, oil users would economize and substitute, just as they did after the oil shocks of the 1970s. The price then would eventually come down.

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