PERHAPS not since the Lincoln Brigade fought against Franco in Spain have so many believed it was America's moral duty to fight in another country's civil war.
Margaret Thatcher says that military involvement on behalf of the Muslims in Bosnia is a "moral imperative," a view echoed by Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Liberals for their part have seemed eager to prove that they too can be tough when a just cause - and not mere oil - is at stake. Bill Clinton has faulted the Bush administration, which in one year both invaded Panama and sent 540,000 United States troops to the Gulf, for being too timid with the use of force. Responding to such criticism, George Bush has now p romised to "do whatever we have to do to stop the killing."
Whatever the merits of particular strategies such as sending ground troops or strategic bombing, whatever the risk of becoming entangled in a deep and deadly quagmire we do not fully understand, and whatever the humanity of expanding the war by supplying arms to Muslim forces, no one seems to doubt the moral imperative of somehow fighting this good fight.
Since moral certainty has rarely been so high in matters of foreign affairs, we might wish to consider other candidates for a crusade:
* Sudan. Strengthened by arms shipments from Libya, Iran, and China, the fundamentalist Islamic government has nearly wiped out the Christian and animist opposition forces in the south. Tens of thousands of others have starved, as the government purposely withholds food. In the north, the junta has imprisoned, tortured, and in some cases executed its opponents.
* Cambodia. After 12 years of nourishment by the United Nations and acquiescence of the US, the Khmer Rouge remains the most potent fighting force in Cambodia. Recently refusing to surrender their arms, they threaten to destroy the UN-supervised peace process. When they last ruled, over a million people were executed, starved, or worked to death.
* Burma. In addition to keeping 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the military has abolished the political opposition, jailed and tortured dissidents, persecuted Muslims so that more than a quarter of a million have fled to Bangladesh, and repressed Buddhist monks. Some of the military's bloodiest efforts have been against a coalition of ethnic hill tribes fighting for greater autonomy.
* Haiti. Hundreds keep trying to flee from Haiti each month. Not content to prevent them from arriving in the US to apply for asylum, we now capture them on the open seas and return them to their persecutors. According to a recent Amnesty International report, the fate of many of those returned is unknown.
THIS list is just a start. If the recent cease-fire does not hold in Mozambique, where RENAMO has killed thousands of civilians for 16 years, why not send troops there? If the proposed 3,500 UN troops prove inadequate to protect food aid to Somalia, where hundreds now starve each day and 1.5 million are in jeopardy, should we not use force to end the clan fighting? What about Guatemala if the latest peace venture does not stop the military's oppression of the Indians? The savagery of the Shining Path in Peru? Afghanistan, where fighting still rages?
Famine, war, torture, even genocide: The killing and dying have persisted in these countries for years. If these horrors do not move us to intervene, why does Bosnia? These countries' remoteness and a lack of US strategic interests there are surely not the reason, for these apply equally or more so to Bosnia.
A major reason we feel compelled to intervene is that most people in America - people who are white, who have power and influence - can see themselves when they look at Bosnia. Whatever the historical inaccuracies of equating the Serbian-run prison camps with Nazi concentration camps, the emaciated bodies poised behind barbed wire remind us of the death camps, of our history, and of ourselves. No matter how many die from starvation in Somalia this year, they will never remind us of ourselves.
Empathy is the basis of a decent, caring society. We should foster and cherish it. But empathy is not the same as moral principle. Nor by itself is it a reason to go to war. Considerations such as well-defined objectives, strategic interests, and tactical flexibility may not seem noble when deciding whether to go to war, but they are crucial for being able to end one. And starting a war without being able to finish it may be the greatest immorality of all.