The War Over the Meaning of the Gulf War

AS the Gulf war ends, the battle over its meaning begins. The next few months of public debate will largely determine how this war is remembered. And since generals and politicians perpetually prepare to fight the last war, our understanding of this war will influence the likelihood and nature of the next. For the majority of Americans, even for many who opposed the war before it began, the sweet smell of success has been intoxicating. A national obsession with winning has led many to see this war as a kind of Superbowl, a harmless, costless high. Thus, war once more becomes a viable option for many politicians, soldiers, and citizens who have always felt frustrated by the stalemates of superpower deterrence and the ambiguities of ordinary life.

Just when its critics had begun to make headway with their assertion that war is suicidal and obsolete, it has been given new legitimacy as an effective solution to problems, a supreme opportunity for heroism and advancement.

These are false but seductive "lessons," deeply dangerous to the future of this nation and the world. This too-easy victory will tempt demagogic politicians and a gullible American public to support the use of force all too readily. Yet even successful wars generate many problems. The defeat of Saddam Hussein removes one tyrant from the region, but by no means assures that his successor will be more benign or that the postwar order will be more peaceful or democratic. Israelis and Palestinians are farth er from a settlement today than before the war. A cauldron of embittered emotions steeps in the heat of Middle Eastern politics, fomenting future conflicts that could turn this victory to ashes in our mouths.

This war has also revived the arrogant and illusory notion that the US has a "duty" to police the world in the interests of "peace and democracy." "We've kicked the Vietnam syndrome at last!" declares George Bush, sweeping aside any lingering reluctance to use maximum force to achieve his version of a "new world order." Without a second superpower to balance its claims, the White House could become entranced with intervention.

The US in reality has neither the right, resources, nor responsibility to serve as the world's enforcer. Yet the UN, the only institution with the legitimate right and responsibility to act on the world's behalf, remained a largely passive bystander in this war. Indeed, this war demonstrates the utter inadequacy of the current UN peacekeeping system. Hobbled by the superpowers, the UN has never been allowed to create its own standing peacekeeping forces. Only when it is given such resources and authorit y will there exist a force fully representative of the global interest rather than a narrow national interest masquerading as collective security.

FINALLY, this war may lend the mistaken impression that the industrialized world can maintain its oil addiction indefinitely simply by threatening force. We have taken the stance of the old Tareyton commercial: "I'd rather fight than switch." But continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil is a recipe for continuous conflict, while reliance on domestic sources promises plunder of virgin wilderness. Most of all, our oil addiction condemns us to uncontrollable climate changes, a threat larger than any human enemy.

The real lesson to be learned from this war is that it's time to move decisively away from our singular dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic, and to pursue conservation as something akin to a national sacrament.

It's time to harness the unity of purpose and resolve demonstrated in this military campaign to develop ecologically benign energy sources like solar, wind, biomass, and hydrogen. The Pentagon spent more in a single day's combat in the Persian Gulf than the entire world spends in a year on R&D for all these sources of energy combined. Elementary arithmetic shows that the most cost-effective investment we can make at this point is to save energy and develop new, nontoxic sources, thereby saving both mone y and lives.

At least as important as who won this war is what lessons we take from it. If we learn the wrong ones, we will likely lose the peace that follows. If we learn the right ones, we may not need to go to war to learn them all over again.

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