Force and euphoria

Contrasting public attitudes toward the Marine presence in Lebanon and the invasion of Grenada tell us something about how we as a nation face international problems.

Even before the tragic explosion in the Marine barracks, the deployment of our forces as part of a multinational peacekeeping effort in Beirut was unpopular in the United States.

The Grenada action, on the other hand, is, by all accounts, initially popular. Those who may question the degree of risk to the Americans or the true nature of the Cuban threat are in a minority.

These attitudes suggest three conclusions about our approach to problems abroad:

1. Force is more admired than diplomacy. This would appear to be true even when force may not achieve the declared objective. Diplomacy is protracted, requires concessions, and often involves talking with adversaries. Force is seen as quick and decisive, and it preserves our sense of honor and power. Those who ultimately successfully negotiated the release of the Iranian hostages received few kudos; the soldiers who died in the attempted rescue were heroes. We have more fear of a repeat of a hostage situation than of another abortive use of force.

2. Achieving strategic objectives is more desired than contributing to a restoration of peace. The role of the Marines in Lebanon would be more popular if they were clearly there to drive out those seen as Soviet allies and surrogates. The concept of creating an environment in which negotiations can take place is more difficult to grasp.

3. A successful deployment of force is popular no matter what the scale. National euphoria can be created by retaking the Mayaguez, shooting down two inferior Libyan jets, or taking a small Caribbean island with overwhelming odds. We are much less enthusiastic about the longer-term deployment of our military in areas such as the Middle East where the stakes may be of substantially greater significance.

These attitudes bear elements of truth. As the Dominican Republic deployments of 1965 and the Lebanese deployments of 1958 demonstrated, force can be used to set the stage for successful diplomacy. Neither can we deny the need to preempt significant strategic advantages sought by our adversaries; those advantages exist in the Caribbean as well as the Middle East.

At the same time, we should not be surprised if these national tendencies make us appear to others, including our closest allies, as too ready to jump to the gun. They have known wars more than we. They are going to be disturbed if we convey, as a nation, an impression that we seek the use of force for its own sake, that we have not sufficiently examined the diplomatic alternatives. If, in the Middle East, we seem to fail to understand the complexities and the sacrifices and determination necessary to reconcile deep differences, our interest in peace will not be taken seriously. Others will question our sense of proportion if we cheer a victory over a small island and demand a withdrawal from an area of major strategic significance.

In the fragile conference on Lebanon now taking place in Geneva, there is a chance for diplomacy. The presence of foreign forces, including those from the United States, has made that possible. If diplomacy wins, it will be in spite of the basic attitudes so widely expressed in the United States.

Grenada today represents a victory applauded by a majority of Americans. If, in the weeks that pass, evidence suggests that we moved too eagerly to find a pretext to invade the island, that consensus could change. So could a change in attitude take place if our involvement extends over many weeks. Such changes could rekindle debates in this country over the use of force and further strengthen European doubts regarding our wisdom.

It is probably unfair to criticize any administration for the temptation to undertake quick and decisive military actions. The urge lies not only in our leaders; it lies within ourselves.

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