Mideast Consensus Has Its Risks

CONSENSUS can be too quickly reached. Hairline flaws in judgment can widen dangerously. A leader's first reactions set in train a response from his staff that reinforces his instincts. President Bush's response to the Iraq-Kuwait crisis shows him and many in his administration still operating from the foreign policy structure of the cold war.

The phrases heard from Bush - defending the international order, building peace and security - became pronounced after World War II, although their roots lie deep in the American psyche.

Forty-five years later, the Soviet Union has lost its economic pins; its claims to power rest on its geographic mass and military strength. Germany and Japan are economic powers. Europe collectively is gaining economic clout but not political coherence. China is a regional power but is insular, plagued by ancient suspicions of its neighbors. That leaves the United States alone as a global economic and military power.

But that power has limited effect, observes Michael H. Hunt, a historian at the University of North Carolina. This was discovered in Vietnam, at the apex of what Americans saw as military sovereignty. It was of little use in dealing with Iran, Lebanon, and the student uprisings in China. Washington could claim minor impact in Libya, Grenada, and Panama. Still it is not clear how far military power will take the US.

The euphoria of the arms airlift has already given way to heartache over the plight of Asian and Philippine refugees and the separation of American family members. Already Bush is pressing to bring the United Nations, Europe, and Japan into an alliance that leaves the US less exposed.

America is no longer the economic power it was, although it remains dominant. President Bush is paying less attention to that side, the economic side, of the world leadership and national health equation. Conservatives are questioning the costs of watchdogging the Middle East. If the situation drags on, Hunt foresees the revival of the liberal/conservative alliance that challenged foreign policy involvements from the 1890s to World War II.

A consensus among Americans and the world community supports President Bush's actions in the Middle East. This is to keep Saddam Hussein from pushing into Saudi Arabia, but not for using force to evict him from Kuwait. This implies a long US encampment in the desert, for the world embargo against Iraq to take effect.

When the alarm bell rings, policymakers do not usually sit down and talk through the structure of policy. A consensus builds from signals a president sends. Policy develops from there - in this case from the presumption America needs to act.

A vigorous response shows Washington still to be a major power. An incipient ``isolationist'' challenge may make Bush all the more want to appear strong.

In the first days, few questions were asked. Two decades hence, when the records are opened, few restraining voices are likely to be found.

Presidents make commitments where there seems to be no other option. But consensus erodes over time. That happens faster now in US politics. Note how the drug crisis has given way to economic concerns.

Another theme in American history is classification along racial, ethnic, and class lines, which follow preferences of earlier settlers. How will this play out in the Middle East, where the US begins with a low level of acceptance? Will making itself Saddam's nemesis weaken the regimes that Washington has made its agents - in Egypt and Jordan? Washington's sense of world order did not fit the cultural and political forces in Southeast Asia. America's biases will make it more alien to the Middle East the longer American troops encamp there.

The high of assuming a special world role can for a time avoid domestic divisions. At home civic decay, violence, and educational decline will reassert their presence. Inevitably it is a nation's human capital, not its supply of oil, that a leader must husband.

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