Can-Do vs. Won't Do

ERNEST B. FURGUSON

March 06, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Success in the Persian Gulf re-establishes ours as a can-do nation, and sets Mr. Bush up as a will-do president. But while we were bemused by the sound-and-light show there, dozens of things were happening elsewhere that would be harder to do anything about, if indeed we had the will.

As Americans followed the war on news maps of Iraq's Tigris and Euphrates valleys, hardly anyone noticed events along the still beautiful but no longer blue Danube.

In Budapest, there was further evidence of the end of the Cold War as foreign and defense ministers of the erstwhile Soviet bloc signed an agreement formally scrapping the Warsaw Pact as a defense alliance. That ended 35 years of military cooperation between Moscow and its six Eastern European neighbors occupation; they will discuss political adjournment this summer.

Up the Danube in Vienna, East-West negotiations to reduce conventional forces in Europe broke down. U.S. officials, skeptical of the figures offered by Moscow's negotiators about Soviet weapons, postponed further talks until March 21. They say the Soviet side is acknowledging only half as many tanks and only a fourth as many artillery pieces as actually are on scene.

In Budapest, momentum from last year's peaceful Eastern European revolution was unstoppable. But in Vienna, where Soviet negotiators are controlled immediately from Moscow, arms talks were braked in response to the rise of hard-line conservatives in the Kremlin.

Whether Mikhail Gorbachev is still in control, or simply being swept along by events, is a matter of vital concern to the U.S. Even as Communist muscle and influence recede, the Soviet Union remains the only other superpower, and what happens in Moscow is still more important to our future than the fate of Saddam Hussein. But since last August, there has been no sign that our president or the National Security Council have given more than a passing thought to any Soviet development that did not bear directly on the Persian Gulf confrontation.

Farther down the Danube, Yugoslavia threatens to break up. Like the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, the non-Serbian republics of Yugoslavia are straining at the artificial ties that have held them together. The day Mr. Bush scoffed at Saddam Hussein's offer to retreat from Kuwait, Croatia's defense minister and seven others were charged by a military prosecutor with planning armed rebellion. Slovenia, which also kicked out its Communist government in free elections last year, is threatening to go its own way.

Next door in Albania, the statue of the last xenophobic Stalinist, Enver Hoxha, has been toppled in the main square of Tirana. In neighboring Bulgaria, Todor HD became the first ousted East-bloc leader to go on trial -- for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars.

The average American couch potato may ask what people named Hoxha and HD, places like Croatia and Slovenia have to do with him. It's the same question Americans asked about people like Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, places like Sarajevo and later Kolubara in 1914. For that matter, how many here had taken notice of Ho Chi Minh in 1960 -- or Saddam Hussein a year ago?

It's understandable that exotic names and causes glaze the eyes of American citizens. But pre-Persian Gulf experience suggests that it's hard to raise any excitement over closer, more familiar situations, unless they concern taxes.

Crime rages on. Schools deteriorate. Roads and bridges crumble. The homeless huddle in our parks and doorways. Oil spills daily and unnoticed into waters that produce seafood and recreation. The level of U.S. public health is shameful for a rich and high-tech nation. When Mr. Bush took office, he acknowledged many of these scandals, but added, ''We have a deficit to bring down. We have more will than wallet, but will is what we need.''

In the Persian Gulf, the president has demonstrated that he has the will to confront a problem 9,000 miles away. For that, despite the deficit, he is willing to ask us to open our wallets. So far, the political climate he and his predecessor created has prevented any meaningful assault on problems at home. Now, success in the Middle East has sent his popularity rating up to an unprecedented 90 percent.

With such popularity, he can do great things for America. Will is what he needs.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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