THE BIG WINNER in the Persian Gulf is likely to be the military-industrial complex.
Already Star Wars fans cite the Patriot missile as justifying the Atlantic-to-Pacific umbrella of Ronald Reagan's fantasy. That's like comparing a Piper Cub to the space shuttle.
A localized defense against a light, unsophisticated missile attack has been practical for years. The Soviets set one up around Moscow. We developed them but decided not to build even the two systems permitted under the ABM treaty, relying on deterrence instead. It turned out to be a wise choice.
If the Soviet Union should fall back into the hands of party hacks and generals, as now seems possible, it probably will want to go ahead with disarmament treaties. Whoever's running the country will have all he can handle in trying to get people fed and clothed.
There's no other threat of missile attack against this country in the mid-term. If one develops, we'll have time to react. Meanwhile, research is enough.
The case that will be pushed for such multi-billion-dollar systems as the B-2 Stealth bomber and an advanced tactical fighter is almost as far-fetched. We've been arming against another superpower with a weapons industry capable of real mischief. Now we need to stay ahead of whatever arms might be turned against us, but that's enough. We're no longer in a hi-tech survival race.
Unfortunately, President Bush is not likely to see things this way in the exultation of victory over his nemesis, Saddam Hussein. He seems bent toward building a Wilsonian international framework led and dominated by the United States.
Being not just high among equals but maximum el supremo means doing all the dirty work and paying most of the bills, as we'll end doing in the gulf. Such a John Philip Sousa approach is likely to be popular in the wake of a Persian Gulf victory. After smarting under Vietnam for a generation, we hunger for a little military reassurance. But it's not what we need.
The likely outcome -- pumping huge sums into the defense budget -- will overlook the real security needs of the country. In a rebuttal letter to the Wall Street Journal, Paul Kennedy, author of "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," noted the other day that the gulf is the first U.S. war to be rationalized as a means of recovering America's lost esteem. What a lousy excuse.
The strength of this country in the next century will depend on how well we motivate and educate our kids, how productive our society can be and how united we are as a nation. We will need armies and navies, alas, but only for defensive purposes, not to enforce a Pax Americana under the high-sounding label of some new world order.
Instead of reaching for such an imperium, however benign, we need to work toward self-sufficiency, productivity and the caring sense of community that makes a society worth living in.
The nation's mayors were in Washington last week, crying out for help on hunger, homelessness, AIDS and other miseries. Nobody listened. Washington was glued to the tube, absorbed in a war that is fairly far down the list of items that will determine our future.