Coming out of the American Fun House

William Pfaff

January 06, 1991|By William Pfaff

PARIS. — Paris.

THE WAR we seem ready to enter in another week or two is much more likely to produce a new American national order than a new international order. It promises an American confrontation with pain and reality which have not been experienced since our angry, thwarted -- and guilt-filled -- abandonment of the Vietnamese to themselves in 1975.

What most marked the United States in the years that followed the Vietnam War was repression of the experience the country had been through. The Vietnam veterans were shamefully made scapegoats, as if serving their country had made them responsible for what went wrong.

At the same time the officials who had taken the country into the Vietnam War in the Johnson Administration, and kept it there in the Nixon Administration, went on to the presidencies of international institutions and foundations, to university faculties, rich consultancies, even the social consolations of New York celebrity society. Only Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon paid a price, in their separate ways. Poor Jimmy Carter told the country that it suffered a ''national malaise'' -- and got laughed out of public life.

His successor presided over the decade in which the past was denied, no one was responsible, no bills had to be paid, and all lunches -- and dinners -- were free, for the rich at least. (The poor had to look after themselves, which was expected to be good for their character).

Money was funny, credit endless, the economy given to the rule of a benevolent god of the marketplace, whose invisible hand ordered everything to a perfect equilibrium. The lower the taxes paid, the richer the nation was to become. The fewer the regulations on business, the more inspired to public service would be the great corporations and financial houses.

The invisible hand impartially sorted winners from losers, the former guiltless Brahmans in stretch limos, the latter sent to their cardboard cartons on the street -- destiny's assignment for them, as for Calcutta's Untouchables. Best of all, the United States was effortlessly and forever Number One.

Eight years in the Fun House. Poor George Bush wanted to make it 12. For reasons difficult to comprehend he decided that a military intervention in the Middle East would help.

This would not have been difficult to understand if Iraq were Panama or Grenada, where little wars did marvels for presidential popularity at negligible cost, other than to a handful of American military men and a few hundred -- or was it thousands? (it's never quite been clear) -- Panamanian civilians and Grenadans. It would have been understandable if Iraq were Nazi Germany, second or third industrial power on earth, with doctrines of racial domination, national expansion and a Thousand-Year Reich.

But Iraq is neither Nazi Germany, nor is it Panama. Surely Mr. Bush, who prefers foreign affairs to wearisome domestic issues, must have known that? For unexplained reasons he chose to turn a nasty but inherently limited episode of regional aggression and retribution into what he now describes as the most important crisis since World War II.

This writer, in recent weeks, has found again and again in ordinary conversations that people say of course it will all be over within a few days. If one says that one does not really think that it will be over within a few days, they express consternation and reply, ''but it has to be over in a few days! It's terrible for you to say that it won't be over quickly!'' This is not an appropriate state of mind for people about to undertake the most important military enterprise the U.S. has experienced since World War II.

In fact it is a cry of pain. It is a cry of trauma from people only now coming out from the Fun House -- dizzy from the roller-coaster, feeling slightly sick from having eaten all that cotton candy, discovering in the blinding daylight that the next-biggest crisis to World War II is, according to their president, about to start.

Iraq does not offer another pretend-war. To win will afford us no solutions, only further problems, worse ones, perhaps. The world is no longer accepting funny-money. The United States' credit is used up. When war starts, the U.S. has to be serious.

If the American public, or the American political class, recoils and runs away from casualties and the shock of battle, as Ronald Reagan's America ran away from Lebanon in 1983, or alternatively, if the United States takes the panicky way out by going to mass destruction weapons with big numbers of collateral civilian casualties, the U.S. is finished as leader either of the old international order or of any new one.

It could be closing time for the American century. It is reality time for Americans, the great and necessary awakening. It could mark a return to maturity. If the diplomatic efforts still going on fail, and the 15th of January arrives with Iraq still dug in in Kuwait, we will discover this generation of Americans' capacity for seriousness.

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