Checking war

There is all too much irresponsible political rhetoric these days about the question of war and peace. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan seem to be trying to outdo each other in imputing to one another either abject weakness or jingoistic warmongering. The sniping is unsavory. There are legitimate areas for mutual criticism, to be sure. But it is hard to conceive that either man as president in the next four years will not do everything possible to prevent war and preserve the peace.

It is all the more disconcerting to be hearing campaign nonsense at a time when another dangerous military clash in the Middle East invites world concern. What is most needed now is a bipartisan, united, prayerful search for ways to strengthen the tools of global peacemaking. This is all the more urgent in light of the mood of growing American public concern about a possible world war. Such thoughts should be given no soil in which to flourish.

Fortunately, on an official level there is more evidence of superpower restraint and coolheadedness than some of the political rhetoric suggests. President Carter has wisely declared that the United States remains neutral in the raging dispute between Iran and Iraq and would become directly involved in the region only if oil supplies to the West were threatened. The Soviet Union, for its part, appears to be exercising extreme caution, calling for a cease-fire and peace talks. While there is no doubt the Russians would like to exploit the conflict to extend their own influence in the region and cause problems for the West, they nonetheless face the dilemma of not wanting to alienate either combatant -- or to invite Western retaliation if they are seen encouraging, for instance, an Iraqi seizure of Iranian oil installations.

It may be instructive to note again just how circumscribed the superpowers seem to be in the face of growing local nationalisms. For all the fears voiced about Soviet expansionism since the invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, the assessment of Moscow's power seems to be changing. The conservative U.S. News & World Report just this week carries a story on the Kremlin's growing domestic and foreign burdens -- troubles in Poland, resistance in Afghanistan, a faltering economy, loss of credibility in the third world. Because of these and other problems, says the magazine, the Kremlin's goal of extending Soviet power throughout the world is "in jeopardy."

At the same time, with rapid political and social changes going on in the world -- and more than 150 nations now in existence -- we seem to be seeing a great deal of instability in governments and more and more conflicts among nations, cultural values, and social systems. Internal upheavals and armed clashes across frontiers in recent years include civil wars in Angola Rhodesia, and Ethiopia, China's incursion into Vietnam, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, Tanzania's move into Uganda, Somalia's action against Ethiopia. And now the boiling cauldron of national, ideological, racial, and cultural hatreds between Iraq and Iran has expoded. It seems to foretoken a turbulent world for some time to come.

Yet it is the possibilities for peace and not the turbulence which ought to preoccupy thinking. In the midst of this fresh outbreak of violence we are reminded of the progress that a policy of Western restraint and moderation -- and diplomatic persistence -- has brought about in such an unsettled region as southern Africa. In the Iran-Iraq conflict it would seem that not much can be done diplomatically until the warring parties feel damaged enough to seek peace. But the international community should be ready to srping into action at the United Nations to end the fighting. While the UN is reluctant to act at this point, it could play a constructive neutral role. Why not, for instance, station a small UN peacekeeping force along the sensitive Iran-Iraq border at the Shatt al Arab waterway?

It is to such peace initiatives that the political candidates ought to be giving attention -- instead of trading charges that only stoke public speculation about war.

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