SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO. — With another war past, the national interest leads onward, changing faces and directions, drawing frustrated followers down uncharted paths. That is the way of the national interest. All leaders of democracies, especially, search for it and pursue it as they understand it. To many geopoliticians, that's the beginning and end of it; you win some and you lose some, and you pay the price of the losses. But in practice the whole ideal of the national interest is far more complex than that.
A constant danger is that leaders even in democracies will confuse national interest with personal interest. It happens often in non-democracies. But where the public's voice is controlling, deep puzzlement seldom endures, and most politicians keep temptation in perspective. Britain's prime ministers go meekly, sacrificing power with office, after great failures or in the face of scandal. Those of modern Japan at least make the proper motions, though how much power they sacrifice is sometimes ambiguous. Richard Nixon, who tried desperately to equate the national interest with his own, understood when to quit fighting and put the nation first.
But in short-term decision making, the national interest is often less obvious. For a time it seemed unmistakable in the Persian Gulf. Saddam Hussein had fixed the terms of conflict. He aimed to control vast oil reserves, unite Arab foreign policy, dominate the region and face down the world's only superpower. Any of these was reason enough to stop him. His removal, distinct from his defeat, was desirable and probable though not mandatory since any successor might be just as hostile.
The national interest of the U.S. emphatically did not include occupation of Iraq, nor did it include installing Kurds or Shiites in Baghdad. Kurds, a large minority, make no claim to national power. What they want ideally is a Kurdistan reflecting their ethnic distribution; more realistically a measure of autonomy. But even the latter is a problem for the U.S., because what Kurds want in Iraq they also want in Turkey, and thus they are a chronic irritant to America's friends in Ankara as well as to Mr. Hussein.
Iraq's majority Shiites, fundamentally hostile to the U.S., historically have been dominated by minority Sunnis. Better for America, the judgment went, that a Sunni remain in power, even a defanged Saddam Hussein if no alternative appeared. Some Iraqi Shiites and Kurds doubtless would suffer, but that was nothing new. Mr. Hussein had butchered Kurds in the past. Any idea that Americans would learn enough about the Kurds to become emotional seemed irrelevant.
The war fulfilled every strategic objective of the U.S. and its allies. Mr. Hussein was driven from Kuwait; his army and his regional ambitions shattered. His nuclear installations and his plants for producing chemical weapons -- though not his stockpile -- seemed to have been destroyed. The U.S. created new criteria of warfare to be studied by every strategic planner in the world. It remained only for the United Nations to install monitors along the Iraq-Kuwait border and all but a few Americans could go home. And then the Kurds moved.
First by the thousands and then by the hundreds of thousands they fled, facing lethal cold and hunger rather than the fury of Mr. Hussein's humiliated troops. As they stalled in the mountains and prepared to die they transformed the immediate national interest of the United States.
For days the administration failed to react. Britain's John Major saw first that inaction would not do. Neither Britons nor Americans would sit passively and watch film of babies dying in icy mud, puzzlement as much as pain in their eyes. The camera became a strategic consideration far greater than ever before. Americans demanded humanitarian action, realizing only faintly that action meant great cost and longer-term occupation, creating the quagmire the administration had vowed to avoid.
Some day cold-eyed geopoliticians may say the national interest favored letting regional interests sort out the Kurdish problem. It happened before; in 1975, America cooperated as the late shah of Iran sold out the Kurds to Saddam Hussein. Few noticed outside the region. This time hundreds of millions around the world were watching, and the moral thing to do became the right thing to do.
Then why is the outcry so much less over the vastly greater toll in Bangladesh, and still less over the prospect that millions will starve in Africa? For many Americans the reason may simply be a sense of responsibility for the U.S. role in the plight of the Kurds. But acts of God in powerless nations present no challenge other than humanitarian. The tragedy on the subcontinent only marginally engages the national interest.
The whole concept of interest is therefore a malleable one subject to revision, sometimes cynical, under pressure. The men who took the nation into Vietnam were certain of the interest at stake. Those who took the nation out were not sure of the cost, they knew only that it had to be paid. George Bush gambled with the national interest when he decided whether to welcome, or to try to slow, the reunification of Germany. He gambles now as he fine-tunes his commitment to Mikhail Gorbachev while guarding against Mr. Gorbachev's fall. History will judge the results.
Is the national interest then merely whatever leaders say it is? Obviously not, for leaders often are proved wrong. Is it then pointless to belabor the idea as something special in policy making? No again, for it at least holds up the ideal of getting it right despite enormous complexity. Unachievable, usually, but unavoidable.
Henry L. Trewhitt, former diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.