Our Policy for the Wretched of the Earth

RICHARD REEVES

September 15, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- Something made me want to look away from the photograph in last week's newspapers of the meeting between President Clinton and the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic.

It was almost obscene: Once again the American leader was saying that he wanted to help, but he could not because European leaders did not share his commitment ''in principle'' to send U.S. troops into Sarajevo, and even if they did, it would not matter because Congress would not let him do it anyway.

Perhaps the president felt he was being decent sitting down with the Bosnian to show his sympathy, but to me it just emphasized the indecency of the whole affair. Smiles and handshakes will not change the shame of months of indecision, impotence and hypocrisy in watching these people run for their lives -- and lose the race.

That humiliating failure to exert or even understand our supposed superpower, happening at the same time as our confused frustration in Somalia, makes it clear that Mr. Clinton has to try to reinvent U.S. foreign policy at the same time he tries to reinvent government.

That unhappy thought struck me as I read ''The Real World Order: Zones of Peace; Zones of Turmoil'' by Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky. The new book is a provocative argument that one might like to reject out-of-hand, but I cannot. Basically, the authors argue that 85 percent of the world, the zones of turmoil, are just hopeless, and we might as well ignore them until they kill enough of themselves to settle down into zones of peace -- if they ever do.

The crux of their argument appears on Page 7: ''There is no

policy that the United States and the other democracies can follow that will prevent the zones of turmoil and development from having coups and revolutions, civil and international wars, and internal massacres and bloody repression. . . . For the zones of turmoil as a whole, stability is at best a meaningless goal.''

The ''zones of peace,'' according to Messrs. Singer and Wildavsky, are essentially the United States and Canada, Western Europe and Japan, along with a few other places such as Australia and New Zealand and, in time, perhaps Mexico and such relatively new countries as Indonesia and the Philippines. The ''zones of turmoil'' are everyplace else -- that 85 percent of the world population living in Sarajevo, Mogadishu and thousands of other miserable places.

The authors say they are optimistic: The peaceful countries are now and finally beyond war among themselves, and some or many of the countries in turmoil inevitably will move toward democracy and prosperity after decades of slaughter and famine. (They make the harsh point that during the 20th century, 40 million people have died in international wars while 100 million have been killed by their own governments.)

But that argument for optimism is made on the next-to-last page. Earlier, the authors conclude that ''military force will be the ultimate determinant of what happens in the zones of turmoil.'' And, they add, the dominant countries in those zones will be the ones that possess nuclear and chemical weapons because ''the democracies will be reluctant to intervene in conflicts against a country armed with nuclear weapons.''

This is their advice for President Clinton on reinventing U.S. foreign policy:

''In the current world order there is no good basis for a long-term political or strategic policy for the United States in the zones of turmoil. . . . We will achieve our basic foreign policy goals -- the long-term protection of American freedom and peace -- without doing anything, as long as the most powerful nations continue to be democracies. Therefore, foreign policy will not have the same kind of importance to the United States in the next world order as it has had in the past.''

I doubt that, beginning with the thought that China will be one of the most powerful of nations before it will become a democracy. The book also argues that the United States should go ahead with development and deployment of Strategic Defense Initiative anti-missile shield -- which I find ludicrous.

But I respect many of the arguments in ''The Real World Order.'' And I am more comfortable with a see-no-evil extension of George Washington's fear of entangling foreign alliances than with Bill Clinton's embarrassing pretense that we are actually willing and able to pacify the zones of turmoil. Perhaps we should stop kidding ourselves about the wretched of the earth.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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