The ethnic factor

Paul Greenberg

October 03, 1990|By Paul Greenberg

ANY OF us who had reservations about George Bush's decision to confront Iraq's Saddam Hussein can be assured by a news item out of Washington: J. William Fulbright, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is against it. With his track record in foreign policy, that's the best endorsement the administration could have received.

Ever since J.William Fulbright sponsored and then repudiated the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution with separate but equal fervor, he has been the embodiment of the inconstancy of American foreign policy. To follow his changing counsel in these matters would be like tying the ship of state to a buoy amid the shifting currents of fashionable American opinion. It comes as a relief to discover that he's on the other side of this issue.

Fulbright-watching may be a petty pastime, but some of us are so addicted to the unceasing flow of ironies it affords that we can't resist it. Only rooting for the Boston Red Sox offers the same kind of almost guaranteed defeatism. Fulbright's projections for the success of American policy would make Cassandra look like a party girl.

Yet there was also a modicum of suspense about where the ex-senator would come down in the current crisis. After all, he signed on to represent one of the Arab emirates after he left the Foreign Relations Committee, just as retired generals go to work for military contractors. Surely he would understand the need to protect these feudal but unthreatening bastions of Araby. But, no, once again he is full of second guesses:

"I don't think we should be running the show," says Fulbright, without offering any realistic way for us not to. With power comes responsibility, and the United States is now the world's remaining superpower.

"Personally," Fulbright says, "I would like the intervention to be in the name of the United Nations." Technically, it is. He adds that he wants the Japanese, who are highly dependent on Mideast oil, to do more in the Middle East. Maybe he hadn't heard about the $4 billion that Japan pledged to the allied effort there. Or maybe he's added Japan-bashing to his more familiar specialty, Israel-bashing.

Martin Gottlieb of the Dayton Daily News has come up with a guide to predicting which familiar figures in American opinion will be hawks and which doves in the division over American policy in the Persian Gulf. "The central factor appears to be Israel," he says. "Dedicated friends of Israel -- on both right and left -- tend to be hawks in the gulf crisis. But people -- on both left and right -- who think the United States is too tied to Israel tend to be doves."

This isn't an absolutely sure guide, but it explains a lot. Fulbright's undisguiseable animus toward the Israelis has won out again.

Fulbright's prejudices in foreign policy are not visceral. They're too effete for that. Rather, they're typical of the old Eurocentric establishment that long made the national interest synonymous with Great Britain's. No one might be more sincerely shocked than the members of this country's fading establishment of Anglo-Saxon Protestants to be told that (a) their foreign policy was itself an instance of ethnic politics, or (b) ethnic politics might have some benefits.

This country does share a great many values with the English-speaking world and specifically with the mother country. The survival of Great Britain in 1939-45 was indeed in the national interest of the United States. And today American society, which owes so much to biblical values, has an interest in the security of Israel -- however improbable that may seem to the Fulbrights and Buchanans. As was the case half a century ago with the British, it is not just a material or strategic interest but a cultural and moral one.

Ethnic politics -- at least the non-English kind -- are often derided in this country as divisive, but ethnic ties can also be a source of strength and enlightenment. The Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and other emigrants from the captive nations warned this country of communism's dangers, then proved prophetic about its eventual demise. And if only the rest of the country had listened more closely to its German minority in 1914, perhaps the United States might not have been swept into World War I, which produced little but communism and fascism. Being ethnic ain't all bad. If you think about it, we all are.

Paul Greenberg is a syndicated columnist.

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