How much will Americans sacrifice for the sake of principle?

William Schneider

September 24, 1990|By William Schneider

WHEN PRESIDENT Bush addressed Congress on the Persian Gulf on Sept. 11, the nation saw a confident chief executive. Bush had good reason to feel confident. He has the support of Congress, the American people and the entire international community. There is a catch, however. He has that support as long as he doesn't do anything. The consensus that Bush has so carefully built is a consensus of principle. A consensus on policy is not yet in place.

A consensus of principle is no small thing,especially between the United States and the Soviet Union. But if the United States uses force without clear Iraqi provocation, that consensus could be broken. As could the domestic consensus in the United States. Cornell University historian Walter Lafeber has written that Americans, "like their wars, hot or cold, the same way they like their baseball: easily understood, brief and with a definite score at the end so it is clear who won."

What Bush offered was a stirring call to principle -- internationalist principle. Our purpose, he said, is to "defend civilized values around the world," among them our willingness to "defend common vital interests," "support the rule of law" and "stand up to aggression."

Though he also said that "vital economic interests are at risk," the economic theme was secondary. The public is not comfortable asking U.S. troops to fight and die to protect our oil supplies -- or other countries' oil supplies. Americans want to fight for a principle, not for a resource.

Bush's critics argue that in the Persian Gulf, U.S. international interests are stronger than its national interests. He agreed, saying with some pride: "This is not . . . the United States against Iraq. It is Iraq against the world." Why should America assume the world's burden? Because, he said, "There is no substitute for American leadership."

But the problem Bush faces is this: How much will Americans be willing to sacrifice for the sake of principle?

Americans have always been torn between internationalist principles and isolationist impulses. Either save the world or stay out of it. In fact, there are two isolationist traditions in American history -- one ideological, the other populist. Ideological isolationists opposed U.S. involvement in the world as a matter of principle. They believed it was morally wrong.

Left-wing isolationists maintained that America had been drawn into war by a conspiracy of arms manufacturers. Right-wing isolationists argued that the United States was on the wrong side in world affairs; America sympathized with Great Britain and the Soviet Union against the fascists.

Left-wing isolationism died when America entered World War II on the anti-fascist side. Right-wing isolationism died when the United States switched sides after the war.

Today, ideological isolationism survives only as fringe movements, and internationalism is an establishment value. It is endorsed by the entire political establishment, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic.

What never really died was populist isolationism -- the sentiment among the poor and poorly educated that however noble America's purposes, most of what it does for the rest of the world is wasteful, pointless, unappreciated and tragic. Sometimes, as in Vietnam, they are right.

The public believes in internationalist principles. That is why public opinion is so strongly behind Bush right now. But when it comes to policy, the isolationist impulse takes over -- particularly when a policy becomes difficult or costly. Americans were happy to win cheap and decisive military victories in Grenada and Panama. But they never supported President Reagan's complicated policies of second-hand intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

There is a strong popular consensus behind the administration's Persian Gulf policy -- in principle. But it hasn't been tested. The test is whether the public will continue to support the policy when Americans start coming home in body bags. And don't stop. Or when the public has to wait in long gasoline lines. Or when the U.S. presence in the gulf becomes controversial and moderate Arab states turn against us. Then the pressure will be on Bush to say: "You don't want us? Fine. We're outta here."

In 1956, Britain, along with France and Israel, invaded Egypt to prevent it from taking control of the Suez Canal. The ill-fated adventure failed. It brought down a British government and demolished Britain's stature as a world power. The British subsequently turned inward and became preoccupied with their own economic problems.

For the United States, the consequences of a failure in Iraq could DTC be just as devastating. The two cases differ on an important point, however. There was no international consensus behind the Suez intervention. It looked like the last gasp of European imperialism. As a result, it was opposed by the Arab world, the Soviet Union -- and the United States.

Bush has been careful to build an international consensus. It is hard to protest "U.S. imperialism" when the Soviet Union and the Arab League support the U.S. position. Unlike Suez, Iraq is a case of principles first, policies later.

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