The Futility of Trying


April 29, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

NOTRE DAME, INDIANA — Notre Dame, Indiana. - The euphoria lasted from mid-February to Easter. Five weeks ago, when this writer was last in the United States, people believed that the country had a new grip on what it wanted and where it was going, and that it could do what it wanted and do it well: Today Iraq, tomorrow the world -- a new world order, a new national agenda.

In South Bend last week one could just as well be back in mid-1990. In fact the mood is worse than a year ago because then Americans felt good about the end of the Cold War. Our system looked great by comparison with what had happened in the East. The future belonged to the democracies.

Then came the Persian Gulf crisis, a sober and responsible debate in Congress over the issues of sanctions and war, followed by a sweeping victory. The Vietnam syndrome was licked, the president said. But victory started to come apart. Realization dawned that a truly horrifying number of Iraqi soldiers had died at American hands, and that literally millions of people were being forced into a blind and tragic migration to nowhere by Saddam Hussein's reprisals against these peoples' attempts to ally themselves with the allied coalition and free themselves from dictatorship.

Developments in liberated Kuwait took an unsavory turn, scarcely consistent with the proclamations of democratic virtue with which Mr. Bush had taken the nation to war. The adrenalin wore off. Americans found the world looking a larger mess than when the U.S. set out to free Kuwait. The ''lesson of Iraq'' is proving to be one of frustrated good intentions and the futility of things -- which is the last subject on which the United States needs another lesson. That was the lesson of Vietnam.

The domestic dimension to this is important. Vietnam was followed within the United States by developing ghetto violence during the 1970s, with seemingly intractable problems of poverty and school failure. Neo-conservatives confirmed popular frustrations by arguing that government programs couldn't solve deep social problems. They said the poor must work their own way out of their plight, and that only the invisible hand of the market can be counted on to order a nation's affairs for the better.

But that has not worked out either. The '80s produced not only visible poverty but also the savings-and-loan debacle, junk bonds and a junk-infested economy, foreign takeovers, deregulations that effected maximum inconvenience on consumers for corporate profit, etc.

These retrograde steps reinforced the popular frustration. Society seemed in the grip of anonymous and omnipotent forces. Even those who celebrated the market said this. Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, a noted defender of the proposition that Reagan-style capitalism is the most just of economic systems because of the creative energies it releases, described homelessness to a University of Notre Dame seminar last week as one of those problems ''we haven't been able to solve.''

It was a characteristic statement of 1980s passivity with respect to social issues. Yet the problem of the homeless actually was solved long ago in the United States. A decade ago the streets of American cities did not teem with the impoverished homeless. Even the Great Depression saw nothing on the scale of today's spectacle of misery, or today's abdication by government of elementary social responsibilities.

Homelessness was made a problem by a liberal campaign to ''free'' the mentally ill from asylums and hospitals where they allegedly were held in violation of their civil rights, giving them over to community care which in practice proved nonexistent, a program supported by some conservative forces because of the opportunity it afforded for cutting government spending on facilities for the mentally ill.

At the same time the Reagan administration cut or ended funding to low-income housing and other social programs that in the past had helped those who today find themselves unemployed, hence homeless, and unemployable because they are homeless. Americans previously had the problem solved, as most other democracies have it solved. We unsolved it for ideological reasons of both left and right.

Six weeks ago it was possible to believe that this kind of abdication of social responsibility in the face of anonymous and allegedly irresistible forces was about to end. It seemed that the United States was ready to attack its problems, believing in itself and in its capacity to accomplish good things. Now the mood again is back to frustration, bafflement that a military victory produces social calamity. A miasma of pessimism has settled over the land again. The lesson of Iraq now seems only a reiteration of the lesson of Vietnam, that of the uselessness of action.


William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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