Now Experience Alone Will Tell

AT some point in the life cycle of major issues, foreign or domestic, the public sizes up what is involved. Purposes and motives, costs and benefits gradually take form and become calculable. Individual positions may remain fixed over time at the extremes of opinion. But the public's commitments either deepen, become more understanding of complexity, or change with experience. After observing America over the past three decades, it has been clear that societies are like individuals in having to learn by doing - often very costly doing. I watched the pendulum swing from early general support of the war in Vietnam to the erosion of commitment. Actually, initial support is often institutional rather than substantive. In resort to arms, the public backs its chief executive's decision. With Vietnam, the futility of fighting a war the US could not win, after France could not win it, ended the involvement. America never understood the motivations and methods of the North Vietnamese. America's concerns were with ideologies, Vietnam's with nationalism. The sets of motives were incongruous and explosive. Today, Americans have no interest in things Vietnamese, except for immigrant colonies of Vietnamese and other Asians that are changing the ethnic mix of the US.

When the Supreme Court ruled that busing was a legitimate remedy for school districts culpable for past discrimination, the court was generally upheld by the public. Partly again this was institutional support for the court. But at the time no one - judge, education expert, desegregation advocate or opponent - had a clue as to what busing might actually achieve. Many individual children's educations may have suffered from it. Even today, busing's report card may be positive more as an affirmation of the need to achieve equal opportunity than as a delivery system for it.

Watergate similarly showed a deliberative process that took its own time and would not be rushed. Granted, longtime Nixon haters thought him guilty of dastardliness from the outset, well before the tapes and testimony made clear his coverup role. But a process of hearings and disclosure had to advance, over time, before the public concluded Nixon had to go.

Back to the judiciary: The 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision won general support and resistance. A dual system of illegal abortions was prevalent: dangerous back-alley abortions for the poor, and safe abortions for the better informed and better off. The court wanted to head off interminable wrangling in the states. Today, the number of legal abortions is deeply disconcerting. But politically the center of opinion has moved affirmatively to the pro-choice side of the spectrum, even as opposition remains entrenched.

Now, on the Iraq war, the public is just beginning to decide where wisdom lies. Institutional support for President Bush is strong. Bush has personalized the war as between himself and Saddam. Personalizing a cause is always a mistake. Bush's trust in technological warfare has yet to be proven. If a land war leads to disastrous personnel losses, if the ecological trauma of the oil spill in the Gulf spreads, if the toll in ``collateral'' civilian casualties in Kuwait and Iraq reaches disaster proportions, if a defeated Iraq leads to a destabilized region, public judgment could shift against Bush. If the war ends quickly and ``appropriately'' with a chastened if not destroyed Saddam, Bush's war decision might reelect him handily. The road not taken - halting Saddam at the Saudi border and allowing sanctions to work - no longer exists.

The point is that societies get launched into ``decisions'' whose wisdom only subsequently becomes apparent. The necessity for this war is still not clear. Five or 15 years from now, Americans and their European allies in the coalition will likely be as culturally ignorant of the Arab world as they are of Vietnam and Asia.

Experts tell us that the Arab world has lacked a moral locus or center, which most recently was Egypt. The countries of the region are often ruled by men from minority sects or families, which makes the countries undemocratic and unstable. It will not be the American and distant allied societies that will be changed by this war, but the countries of the region.

More than this, experience alone will tell.

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