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COLUMN LEFT : Forget Ideals; Just Give Us a Punching Bag : This time, fronting for oil princes, we couldn't invoke the old defense of democracy; fighting 'evil' sufficed.

March 03, 1991|GEORGE BLACK | George Black is foreign editor of the Nation

One of the first lessons to emerge from the rubble of Kuwait is a surprising and paradoxical one: that America's wars are likely to enjoy broader public support if they are unencumbered by any pretense that the United States is fighting to defend democracy. Americans are more comfortable, it seems, with war as an assertion of naked power, designed not to make over foreign countries in our own image but to destroy and humiliate those to whom we have taken a dislike.

The crushing of modern enemies like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein has a different logic from the hot fights that punctuated the Cold War. The containment of communism typically involved shoring up weak client regimes--in Greece, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam--and selling them at home as budding democracies. But passing off the likes of Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu as reincarnations of Jefferson invariably degenerated into a defense of the indefensible, muddying U.S. political goals, alienating public opinion and irritating the generals. The unconcluded war in El Salvador, where the United States still jumps through hoops to tout the democratic credentials of allies who murder priests in the middle of the night, is the messiest relic of this Cold War style of conflict.

What is remarkable about the Gulf War is how rapidly all talk of defending democracy was jettisoned. Even in the confused early days of Desert Shield, when the definition of U.S. motives shifted almost daily--oil, jobs, "our way of life"--the defense of democracy was notably absent. The most obvious reason was that the absolutist rule of King Fahd and the Sabah family did not adhere even minimally to any democratic standards.

In their first weeks in the desert, a few reporters did fleetingly note that Saudi women were not allowed to drive cars, that the Kuwaiti parliament has been suspended since 1986, and that the emirs and princes seemed keener to sink their oil wealth into European casinos than into the welfare of their subjects.

As the war ended, there was no sign that the Sabahs had changed their ways. Their first act, as allied troops neared Kuwait City, was to issue a royal decree instituting martial law, which will close the borders to exiled democratic opponents. But George Bush had learned a valuable lesson: that reporters will not waste much time examining the democratic shortcomings of friendly regimes if the White House does not first fall into the trap of playing up their democratic credentials.

The landscape also helped. Ronald Reagan, while governor of California, expressed the view that the United States should have bombed Vietnam into a parking lot and painted stripes on it. The beauty of Kuwait, as one wide-eyed grunt put it, is that it already resembled a parking lot. In that flat and featureless expanse there was no one, save a few Bedouins, to complicate the war effort with hearts and minds to be won.

Much more satisfying than a war burdened by the hard sell of democracy is one in which absolute evil is vanquished by absolute good--embodied, by definition, in the Stars and Stripes. There was no sentimental nonsense about democracy in the review of national security policy that Bush ordered at the start of his presidency. It simply advised: "In cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat them decisively and rapidly."

This also appears to involve a ritual of humiliation, in which the enemy is first vilified in a manner that recalls the daily Two Minutes Hate directed at the huge projected face of the traitor Goldstein in George Orwell's "1984." This extends from the respectable elite media--as in the New Republic's embellishing a cover photo of Saddam Hussein to make his mustache resemble Hitler's--to the yahoo culture, with its Saddam dart boards, its Scudbuster T-shirts, and the electric chair in one New York store where customers have been paying $5 for the privilege of throwing the switch on the wacky Iraqi. (Gail Collins of Newsday reports that Japanese and German news crews enjoy standing off to one side to tape this, which strikes me somehow as the perfect metaphor for Bush's "new world order.")

From Truman to Reagan, every postwar U.S. President has cloaked his crusades in the language of democracy. George Bush appears to prefer a more direct approach. One of the minor cultural artifacts of this war was a button that read, quoting the President, "America kicks butt." The question is, does it any longer know how to do anything else?

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