We Have Met the 800-Pound Gorilla and It Is Us

March 07, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. The war in the gulf would be a defining moment in American history, said the president of the United States before it began. George Bush is a man of soft speech and noisy rhetoric, but it seems possible that for once he erred on the side of rhetorical restraint. This war may define a new world.

The big story of the past two months, 60 days that changed the world, is not about the present or future of the Middle East. That rich and cursed place will continue to be what it has been long after this batch of dead are buried.

The defining story is overwhelming American military superiority, and how the world intends to deal with that. Iraq was grossly overestimated as even a second- or third-rate military power, but the Iraqis did have a lot of men and tanks and planes, certainly enough to make a respectable and bloody stand in the past.

We were able to roast them almost effortlessly, ending up by mercilessly burning everyone and everything on the blocked road from Kuwait City to Basra.

There was nothing Iraq could do to stop us, and it is arguable that no force on earth could. That includes the Soviet Union, manufacturer of most of the weapons turned to scrap metal in an instant by smart bombs and smart men from the United States.

There has been only one global military imbalance anything like this in modern history. From 1945 to 1950, the United States alone had the atomic bomb.

But as we learned in Korea and Vietnam, it was a weapon almost impossible to use after the unthinkable devastation of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The difference now is that the high-technology weapons we demonstrated so ably against Iraq can be used again and again.

They also could be improved again and again by rich high-technology countries. The Soviets are not in that class.

Big technology, nuclear weapons and heavy-lifting rockets, are within the limits of Soviet capabilities, but the smaller and higher technology of guidance and sensing systems are not.

In fact, the only countries capable even of attempting to compete with American military technology are our World War II enemies, Japan and Germany.

I would be a very surprised fellow if there are not already meetings going on about this right now in Tokyo, discussions of the highest secrecy about the possibilities of new-generation weapons and systems beyond anything the Americans have now or in development.

Can Japan, which more than any nation knows how tough we really are, afford to ignore the dangers to its people if the United States becomes more and more frustrated as it perceives Japan as an economic enemy?

Germany is a more complicated case, perhaps even more traumatized than Japan by World War II, and more comfortable and secure in its interdependent relations with both the United States and the West and with the Soviets and their former satellites.

But who knows? Germans, I'm sure, understand they will now be dealing with a much more assertive United States. The threat is always there with this kind of military imbalance.

This kind of analysis is shocking and offensive to some Americans. We see ourselves as a just and kind people, gentle and decent, reluctant warriors.

That, unfortunately, is not the way others see us. We are the 800-pound gorillas of the world, even bigger now. We sleep wherever we want to sleep.

We tell people around the world how to run their countries, when to have their elections, whom to trade with and not trade with, what to grow and what not to grow, what bombs to build and what bombs not to build.

And three times in the last eight years we have invaded countries that could not or would not take our orders.

People are afraid of us, for good reason. We like war better than most, because we do not remember ever being mauled or invaded or occupied. Most other people do remember. They are more frightened of war itself, whatever the reason.

We are not the policeman of the world now. The world has changed in just 60 days. We are the police chief of the world.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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