The War of Uncle Sam's Nose

GARRY WILLS

January 15, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- It is fascinating to see how quickly a consensus was formed around the need to attack Iraq. The aim of the attack was not so clear -- to teach Saddam Hussein a lesson, to ''take out'' this or that installation, to interdict activity along the Kuwaiti border. These nebulous goals seemed to satisfy people who asked a narrow range of questions: Was Mr. Hussein being aggressive? Should aggressors go unpunished? Should non-aggression be in principle defended?

These questions almost answer themselves, and end debate instead of prompting it. But there are other questions, not so readily answered, that get less airing.

* What follows after our ''strike'' (a term we prefer to ''attack'')? Will Mr. Hussein be taught a lesson? He was not, apparently, by our far more intense and extensive teaching effort during the Gulf War. Will he and his be hardened to longer, tougher opposition? If so, we have not taught him anything, but proved our inability to learn from our own past acts.

P * Whom, if anyone, will we help by our missiles? In the Gulf War, at least, we restored Kuwait to the indigenous corrupt regime -- if that was a gain. We kept Kuwaiti oil out of Mr. Hussein's hands -- which was a gain. The Kurds got nothing out of this. Who will get anything out of the new raids? Will anyone in the area be less poor, less hungry, less hated or hating? Why do we so rarely ask those questions?

* Is what Mr. Hussein is doing a real threat to us, or a nuisance? For years the Kennedys and others told us that Fidel Castro was a vital threat to our existence, one that had to be removed. Mr. Castro briefly became a threat, but only because Kennedy raids on him made him seek and get Russian missiles. We removed the missiles by indicating we would not remove Mr. Castro -- after which he became and remains a nuisance, one we found we could live with.

* If Mr. Hussein is a threat, not a nuisance, is the occasional raid a sufficient response? If not, must he be removed? If he is, will the condition after be any more benign than it is now? If he must be removed, what cost are we willing to pay? And if we do it in his case, will we be ready (or be compelled) to pay it with every nuisance-threat in the world?

Any one of these questions, rigorously asked, would unsteady the quick unthinking consensus that formed around the notion of ''doing something'' about Mr. Hussein. The itch to ''do something'' should not too readily be scratched when killing is the only ''something'' people seem capable of imagining.

The new world order asks the same old questions, yields to the same old instincts. We find a villain -- the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar el Kadafi, Mr. Castro, Mr. Hussein -- and think we cannot rest until we punish him. We wonder little if at all how this will affect people in the region. We care not for them but for our own immensely valuable national nose -- we have to show that this delicate nose cannot be tweaked. That is the real source of our anger and urgency to act.

The British once fought a War of Jenkins' Ear. We should give our own raids their proper name. They are our War of Uncle Sam's Nose.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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