New year, new realities


When the new decade arrived a year ago, the world seemed to be on the verge of an era of peace and freedom. Soviet domination of Eastern Europe had dissolved, with dictatorships giving way to democracy. As the Berlin Wall crumbled, talk of a "peace dividend" cheered those who lamented the growing gap between the needs of Americans and the ability of either the economy or the government to meet them.

That optimism now seems hopelessly naive. In Eastern Europe the giddy elation of the first whiffs of freedom have given way to the harsh realities of desperate economies and degraded environments. In this country, hopes of a peace dividend have vanished as the economy slides into recession and nearly half a million Americans prepare for battle in the Mideast.

Meanwhile, the country ponders the fact that if war comes, it will call for the loss of American lives on behalf of a regime that rigidly enforces an elaborate form of segregation. Those laws are directed not at blacks, but at women; so it is no small irony that a Mideast war would be the first test of a volunteer military that depends heavily on women to fill its ranks. Many Americans were also dismayed by the military's efforts to mute Christmas celebrations so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. News reports of the subdued way in which U.S. troops marked the holiday provided a stark contrast to the film clips of Christmas celebrations by Christians in Iraq. No doubt Saddam Hussein was eager for that footage to make all the U.S. newscasts. After all, it reinforced an uncomfortable fact about this confrontation -- however odious Iraq's current leader, most Americans would feel more at ease there than in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of the outcome of this crisis, it's clear that in this New Year, and for many years to come, Americans have a lot to learn about allies and enemies in the Mideast.

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