The Challenge of Waging Peace

WHY does war seem so much easier to wage than peace? The president who has long had trouble with ``the vision thing'' has finally connected with the people. In his address last week to Congress and the nation, George Bush laid out his rationale for the largest military deployment since Vietnam.

In terms reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson, he spoke of Operation Desert Shield as a way to establish a ``new world order'' in which justice and law, not brute force, govern.

Yet this comes at one of those moments when the nation seems to be coming apart along the home front.

The economy is widely seen to be in, or entering into, a recession. Children head back to school with fancy new lunch boxes but with reduced adult expectations that they will actually learn very much. The recent murder of a young tourist in New York City as he tried to protect his parents from muggers was only one instance of the crime that threatens to make our cities unlivable.

And a new study by the Public Citizen Health Research Group and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill finds that America is reverting to the last century in its treatment of the mentally ill. ``Not since the 1820s have so many mentally ill individuals lived untreated in public shelters, on the streets, and in jails,'' the study found.

Despite all this evidence of unmet human needs, it was a bit unusual the other day to hear someone make the case for government as an agent for solving social problems. This was what New York Gov. Mario Cuomo did at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, arguing for ``progressive federalism'' in contrast with the ``fend-for-yourself federalism'' of the Reagan years, which turned so many federal functions back to the states - without turning any funds back.

Cuomo quoted Lincoln: ``The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.'' And he invoked the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who recognized that a stronger central government was called for when their first constitutional experiment began to fail. ``Make no mistake, the loosely tied raft of confederation would have broken up in the rough water of our history.''

Now Governor Cuomo was being part partisan, and part tactician, as well as part statesman at Harvard. He fired a warning shot to the budget summiteers sequestered at Andrews Air Force Base: Don't mess with the deductibility from federal income taxes of state income taxes and local property taxes. (This particular pitch had its counterpart in the president's speech on the Gulf crisis, into which he tucked a plea for his pet capital-gains tax-cut proposal.)

But maybe Cuomo needed to be a bit partisan. If the Democrats are ever going to retake the White House, they will need a positive message, not just someone saying, ``Hey, I'm no liberal, so vote for me.'' For all his not-running over the past several years, Cuomo has done as well as anyone in his party at putting out a positive message.

And he is building a campaign fund; his Boston visit included a fund-raising dinner, too. The money is needed for his reelection race against his Republican challenger, Pierre Rinfret. (Try to read the preceding sentence aloud with a straight face.)

Still - Cuomo reminds us how much easier it is to wage war, and to mobilize leadership for war, than peace. It is easier to let ourselves be galvanized by the fear and anger that attach to a military crisis abroad than it is to go humbly about the work of domestic peace - work that is so critical because it can be so easily postponed or neglected, and yet must not be. The toughest battles aren't fought in the desert or on the high seas, but rather within the human heart, one at a time.

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