PORTLAND, ORE. — Long ago, I went to dinner at the home of a relative who is a very good cook and served myself too much food. When I took my plate to the sink, she looked at the leftovers and said, "Your eyes were bigger than your stomach."
A dinner plate seems an appropriate symbol of the way Americans deal with problems beyond our borders. We've never had a big appetite for solving international disputes unless they pose an obvious threat to our national security. When it comes to global issues we like to keep the priority list short so we can devote most of our attention to the pursuit of domestic tranquility and all those other good things listed in the Constitution.
But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the administration has been working overtime in the foreign-policy kitchen, and I'm beginning to think their smorgasbord approach may prove unpalatable to a lot of citizens in the long run.
Listing the major entrees in order of popularity:
Item No. 1 would certainly be the fight against Al Qaeda. Memories of four airliners turned into deadly flying bombs provide all the incentive most of us need to support an ongoing worldwide pursuit of the organization that carried out the attacks. The recipe also includes many of the same ingredients found in:
Item No. 2 - Rebuilding Afghanistan. I cringe every time some pundit mentions our "quick victory" on this front. The Taliban may have fled its strongholds, but it's still finding recruits in the region while the new government struggles to widen its base of support. It's hard to know what kind of commitment Americans will tolerate in this situation, and the outlook becomes even more complicated when you add in:
Item No. 3 - Disarming and/or toppling Saddam Hussein. From a purely motivational standpoint, this is a tough sell because many Americans don't see themselves endangered by the Iraqi leader, which is the main reason the Bush team wants to link him with Al Qaeda. What makes this scenario more of a bitter hash is the prospect of having it spill into:
Item No. 4 - Israel vs. the Palestinians. It's like a kettle of angry stew that no one can cool off, alternately simmering and boiling but fortunately always remaining inside the container. What effect would military intervention in Iraq have on this precarious balance? And for anyone who feels certain that US troops would be in and out of Baghdad quickly, I'd point a cautionary finger at:
Item No. 5 - The Korean Peninsula. In October 1950, President Truman met with Gen. Douglas MacArthur on Wake Island. General MacArthur assured him that the war was under control, organized resistance would soon end, and the US Eighth Army would be back in Japan by Christmas. Now, 50-plus years later, we're still facing a defiant, unpredictable North Korea.
President Bush wants unity of support for this entire menu. But the plate is getting awfully full, and I'm not sure Americans have an appetite for everything being served up.