A man for one season VTC

Paul Greenberg

April 11, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

J. WILLIAM FULBRIGHT, a distinguished visitor from Washington, came through Arkansas last week on a trip down memory lane. Everything was as it once was: The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was still bad-mouthing American foreign policy, the American military, the American president . . .

It could have been the Seething '60s again. The more things had changed, the more J. William Fulbright had remained the same. It was kind of assuring in a a zany way -- like going back to your past and finding at least somebody who hadn't changed a bit.

This time it wasn't the defeat in Vietnam that was a misconceived adventure of the military-industrial complex but the victory in Iraq. Fulbright said he would have preferred economic sanctions rather than military force to loosen Saddam Hussein's grip on Kuwait. As he put it, "It was the perfect setup, I thought, to enforce an embargo to get a country to surrender its purposes and settle it through negotiations, through the United Nations."

Nothing has changed in Fulbrightiana, not even the romance of the U.N. That this decade's aggressor showed no sign of yielding to economic pressure for some five months did not seem to trouble J. William Fulbright, whose grasp of world realities rivals that of George McGovern.

During this past year, the former senator from Arkansas bore up well as more and more of Kuwait was forcibly digested by Saddam Hussein's ruthless regime. J. William Fulbright long has been been able to bear the hardships and injustices inflicted on others with remarkable fortitude. See his signature on the Southern Manifesto. As a senator, he compiled an almost unbroken record of opposition to civil rights for Americans. It should not surprise to find him less than consumed by Kuwaitis' rights to a national existence.

About this great victory in the gulf, he explained, it wasn't. To quote J. William Fulbright, military analyst: "When you think of it, a big country like us prevailing over a little pissant country like that, it's not such a great victory. It's the same thing we did with Grenada and Panama."

These days, J. William Fulbright sounds remarkably like the old-time isolationists he used to battle in his shining youth. Then of course it was Europe that was at risk from the ravings of a heavily armed fanatic, and he could understand the danger. This time it was only the Arab world.

Some of the points J. William Fulbright made in 1940 as president of the University of Arkansas would have been remarkably relevant in 1990. For example, "Too often today we hear the profound pronouncement by an isolationist senator that this country does not want war . . . The fact is the world has war and the question is what it should do about it."

The world had war in the gulf as of Aug. 2, 1990 -- when Iraq seized Kuwait and proceeded to devour it day by day, victim by victim. To the question -- what should the world do about it? -- J. William Fulbright's approach was sounder in 1940. "His speeches of that pre-Pearl Harbor period," to quote one of his biographers, "were among the finest he would ever deliver . . ."

Now he says things like this: "You calculate what we've been spending on military things and the needs we have. You go around Washington and the . . . streets are full of potholes. Every evidence of neglect. It's a shame . . . We exhausted our resources on the stupid military."

The isolationists of the '30s couldn't have put it more plainly: Not just America First but America Only. The upshot of their blind policy was the most destructive war in the history of mankind -- and the only one in which nuclear weapons were used. Would this country really be better off, and the world a safer place, if Saddam Hussein still held Kuwait, if the international embargo of Iraq still leaked, if passions were still rising throughout the Arab world, and a bigger and graver war yet loomed?

Fulbright now tends to begin interviews and speeches with some charming, self-deprecating remarks about how old and decrepit he has become. Nonsense. This is the same vigorous J. William Fulbright who, after the Republican sweep of the congressional elections in 1946, was heard suggesting that Harry Truman step down as president and make way for a Republican administration. (Our Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas was enamored of the British parliamentary system even then.)

Fulbright's stop in Little Rock demonstrates that, bless him, the old boy hasn't lost his touch. Some of his ideas about American foreign policy, presidential leadership, the Middle East and global strategy are as sound as ever. Unfortunately.

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