The Many Lessons in History's Book


December 14, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- Policy makers think in metaphors, and for American interventions abroad, the metaphors are few: Vietnam, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf.

Each is supposed to supply something useful in making decisions about Somalia and Bosnia, or Azerbaijan-Armenia, Trans-Caucasia, Cambodia, Burma, Sudan, Liberia -- not to speak of Mozambique, where U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has just asked for 750 more good men to put up the U.N.'s colors and keep the peace, this time in Macedonia.

Consider the metaphors. For Americans, Vietnam means unresolvable entanglements in another country's violent internal political struggles (or its revolution). Lebanon means the same thing, except that the internal conflict was religio-political this time, and the United States put itself into a situation where four other uncontrollable actors determined what would happen: the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran and Syria.

The rationale for the American intervention in Vietnam was to save South Vietnam from Communist aggression. Unfortunately, there was no aggression; there was insurrection. North Vietnam was not a foreign power; it was that part of the Vietnamese nation which had first expelled the foreigner. China had no decisive role in Vietnam, contrary to what stubbornly was insisted in Washington. The lesson that ought to have been learned was not to think ideologically.

The Gulf War was a clear case of aggression. U.S./U.N. intervention reversed the aggression, even if the aggressor regime comfortably survived. The lesson confirmed at the Pentagon was always to use overwhelming force, and the lesson drawn at the White House was not to stop before overturning the aggressor government. However, the reason the United States had not gone on to try to impose its will on Iraq's political society was that the White House had learned the lessons of Vietnam and Lebanon.

No sensible operational rationale was ever offered for the American intervention in Lebanon in 1983, which produced the death of 241 Marines at the hands of Islamic integrists. The lesson the military learned from the experience was never to permit their security to depend upon others, and always to demand clear-cut objectives.

The latter are not always available, however. The American objective in Somalia is to ''restore hope.'' What does this mean in tons of food delivered, medicines administered, roads opened (to be kept open), clansmen disarmed, infrastructure restored? How will restored hope last beyond January 20 if the U.S or the Lessons from the past can be used to justify inaction more readily than action, since the past is complex and its contradictions are apparent. But another lesson is of the terrible consequences of evading responsibility.

U.N. do not re-create some kind of Somalian political authority? How is that to be done?

The Somalia problem is anarchy. Starvation is due to chaotic clan conflict. The situation bears a superficial resemblance to Lebanon, but a misleading one in that the Lebanese factions all were purposeful, disciplined and rational within their own terms, and none of this is true for the Somalian clans. The United States has intervened in the belief that it can deal with the starvation and ignore the anarchy. This is unlikely to prove to be true.

The other African societies that are candidates for intervention are in much the same condition of political and social breakdown. People are hungry there. They need government, police and public order, reconstructed economies and agriculture. Mr. Boutros-Ghali is one of the few who are interested.

Elsewhere, atrocious crimes invite intervention: ''ethnic cleansing'' in Bosnia and Croatia, and the beginnings of it elsewhere; Saddam Hussein's war on Kurds and the Shiite Marsh Arabs of Iraq; governmental persecution of tribal and political minorities in Burma, etc.

New aggressions await rectification. Serbia's invasion of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, after each had been duly recognized by the international community, was little different from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. We seem on the verge of new acts of international aggression in the Balkans. Why is the lesson of Munich not respected?

The thing about lessons from the past is that they can be used to justify inaction more readily than action, since the past is complex and its contradictions are apparent. The lessons of Vietnam and Lebanon are of the frustration or defeat of interventions. That of the Gulf is of an intervention's limits. But another lesson, not least that of World War II, is of the terrible consequences of inaction and the evasion of responsibility.

We are in Somalia because we do not wish to be elsewhere. We have persuaded ourselves that it is an easy case for intervention. It is true that decisions concerning military interventions cannot be made in terms of universally valid principles. There are important issues of physical and political practicality, as well as of simple prudence. There is a limit to what can be done for others.

However, the limits we currently are observing in the United States, and in the West as a whole, seem exclusively those determined by our own domestic political advantage and the desire to avoid political risk. This is not pragmatism, but a form of moral as well as political abdication. And it is precisely for this that history eventually imposes a sanction, a terrible one. That is the final lesson.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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