TO understand how Americans look at foreign affairs requires an awareness of the American passion for sports. The latest example is the war in the Persian Gulf. For many in the United States it was like a great sports event: the banners, the ribbons, the excitement, the suspense, the hours before the TV, the parades, the adulation of the coach (read president), climaxed by the quarter-page headlines, ``We Won.''
The winning was all the sweeter because we had lost previous games such as the overtime match in Vietnam. The possibility that the strength of the Iraqi opponent may have been exaggerated was irrelevant. As with a football game, we tore down the goal posts and went home. The injuries and humiliation of the other team and its supporters and the litter in the stadium were matters for others to worry about.
Moreover, buoyed by the success, Americans talked of how they could use their remarkable offense to win struggles against tyrants elsewhere in the world.
But the war in the Gulf was not a Super Bowl. As with all wars, it was a violent and destructive intrusion into the affairs of others. As with past wars, too, its lessons are not easily transferable to other conflicts - conflicts without the indisputable aggression, the wealth to pay for the response, and the confluence of international interests in the resources of the region.
To take exception to the nation's oversimplified enthusiasm for warfare was never justified. In the case of the Gulf war, significant objectives were achieved. Kuwait was restored to independence, the security of Saudi Arabia was reinforced, and the threat from weapons of mass destruction to friends of the US in the Middle East was substantially reduced.
To seek to place war in a more serious context is not to detract from the remarkable military accomplishment - in weapons, in planning and execution - and the courage and determination of the forces. It is to suggest that war is but one phase in the continuing evolution of events; the final gun does not neatly end the game. It did not in Europe; the ``end of the cold war'' was seen as the ``end of history,'' but subsequent unrest has opened a new phase. It has not in the Gulf, where the implications of the aftermath continue to unfold.
The basic issues are still unresolved. In the euphoria of success, Americans have been too quick to apply assumptions that have yet to be proven: that US prestige enables Washington to perform diplomatic miracles; that the Arab states will change their attitudes toward Israel; that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is totally discredited because of his support for Iraq; that the wealthy states of the Gulf are willing to share their wealth with the poorer Arab countries; that Israel will take a more benign atti tude toward the Palestinians; that the United Nations is now a malleable instrument of US foreign policy.
The destruction of war, marked by revolts in Iraq, burning oil wells in Kuwait, and tides of refugees, may only have exacerbated age-old problems. But, say many Americans, we are not responsible for this destruction; Saddam Hussein's brutal ambitions and invasion of Kuwait were the root causes. Yet one wonders whether the Kurds, fleeing the Iraqi army in the north, or the shattered Shia families of the south, believing they were encouraged to rise up by the words of an American president, can call their experience a ``great victory'' as Americans did.
Of course, in some ways it was a great victory. But ``victory'' implies, as in sports, that the game is over, the score is known, and the team can look forward to a rematch. Such an attitude toward armed conflict suggests that, for many Americans, war is an end in itself and that once the guns are silent and the soldiers come home, the nation can turn its attention to other matters. The responsibility for the aftermath lies elsewhere.
If, in the afterglow of the Gulf war, Americans feel that their predominant role in the world is once more established, the meeting of that responsibility requires a serious, sustained attitude toward military conflict and problems abroad. Wars are not to be checked off as if they were events on an athletic schedule.