Gulf of Assumptions

George F. Will

November 18, 1990|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON--THOSE WHO DO not learn from the past are not really condemned to repeat it. They could not repeat it, even if they wanted to. Situations that are sufficiently similar in the relevant particulars rarely, if ever, recur, least of all in international relations. Nevertheless there is, as in the U.S. response to Iraqi aggression, a powerful inclination toward policy-by-analogy: ''Hitler revisited''; ''avoiding another Munich.''

Given the pull of analogies on current policy makers, it is good that it is not true that all we learn from the past is that we do not learn from it. There are certain consistencies, such as elements of American national character, and certain recurring ideas, concerning which the past illuminates the present crisis.

There is an old -- as old as this nation -- hope that economic coercion can radically reduce or even obviate reliance on combat in international conflicts. A second recurring hope is as old as air power. It is that air power, delivering economical doses of force precisely against an enemy's military assets, can substantially economize violence by reducing reliance on ground combat, with its horrible human costs.

When this Republic was young, it was brimming with the conviction that it could inaugurate a new science and ethic of politics, in international as well as domestic affairs. One of the nation's first noble experiments was the Embargo Act of 1807.

It lasted just 14 months. It still ranks as one of the nation's most complete and perhaps characteristic foreign-policy failures.

The embargo was intended as an alternative to war against England and France in defense of U.S. commercial rights as a neutral. But France liked the embargo because it hurt England more, and it hurt New England manufacturing and shipping interests most. It caused smuggling, sectional animosities and even secessionist sentiment in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The embargo was a joining of theory and practice by the president, Thomas Jefferson, most inclined to attempt such a joining. But that particular economic sanction, an infant nation's pinprick against two powerful nations locked in a long, violent struggle, could not succeed. And the 1940 U.S. embargo on strategic materials for Japan probably hastened what by then may have been inevitable: a Japanese turn toward war.

But history does not teach that sanctions as comprehensive as today's against Iraq will fail to coerce a country so dependent on imports of food and military components for its high-tech garrison state.

Sanctions are a form of force for inflicting serious pain. ''Do not,'' warns Sen. Pat Moynihan, ''expect any nation to give up what it considers vital interests simply because its supplies of orange pekoe tea run low.''

And when food supplies run low, the elite soldiers will be the last to starve. Therefore the nation that imposes serious sanctions should be prepared by its political leadership, as the American public has not been, for grim consequences of its policy. Such sanctions take time, but they should take a toll on Iraq.

People impatient with sanctions say Iraq can be coerced at small cost to Americans using air power. Perhaps.

Ever since 1911, when the Italians -- yes, the Italians -- in Libya experimented with aircraft as weapon platforms, military planners have hoped that air power could be used to economize the violence of war. In 1932, Britain's Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said, ''The bomber will always get through,'' a statement that reflected widespread pessimism about defense and deepened the pacifist impulse in Britain. Eight years later, the Royal Air Force's fighter pilots magnificently refuted Baldwin.

Actually, over-estimation of air power arose, in part, from optimism that war could be made less ruinous than the carnage of static trench combat in World War I, when both sides fought machine-guns with young men's chests. Thereafter, there was a will to believe that air power could shorten wars by delivering decisive blows past the front, to the weapons factories that sustain modern war.

However, the deep penetration raids by Flying Fortresses into Germany, as with the bombing of Japan's cities, coincided with increased war production, almost to the end of the war. In ''saturation bombing,'' only one in a hundred bombs might hit a target unless the target was very broadly defined, as in Dresden. This demonstrated the limits of free-fall explosives.

Today's inventory of air-delivered munitions is varied and sophisticated and, perhaps, makes air power able, in the context of Iraqi targets, to fulfill, at last, the long-deferred dream of war-winning blows delivered from the air.

But do not bet on military victory delivered from the air by Americans, with no American blood on the ground. A better bet is to give today's sanctions, which have sharp teeth, time to bite.

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