THE NATION, which had been swimming in murky, choppy waters since August, gulped fresh air on the first day after the launching of Operation Desert Storm. There was a palpable sense of release. This might be a short and inexpensive war, many said. But the euphoria is disappearing rapidly.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who had confidently predicted a five-day conflict, has not been heard from. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin, who shared the senator's assessment, continues to deliver expert testimony although days have become weeks and weeks may become months.
Declaring himself "very pleased with our progress," President Bush says that operations are "right on schedule." But he warns of "setbacks" and "more sacrifices" ahead. Dick Cheney, secretary of defense, agrees. Whatever the potential remaining in Iraq's military and political weaponry, concludes Cheney, Saddam Hussein "cannot change the basic course of the conflict. He will be defeated." Given the population difference and huge disparity in development and gross national product between the United States and Iraq, could that result ever have been doubted?
So what's at the bottom of a pervasive unease in the nation as the war trundles toward its third week? Is it to be found in the paradox between the success of the "smart" bombs and the failure of diplomacy to avert war; in the military weapons' sophistication measured against political primitivism? Has the argument that declaring war is the last best hope for peace created fissures which, under stress, might widen and swallow Bush's policies as well as his presidency?
The fault is not that this is "Bush's war," as some of the anti-war placards have it. The fault lies in the concept of a new world order which hardly differs from the old. Limits and a certain balance imposed by the Cold War stand-off no longer exist. The U.S., the sole superpower, scarred though it may be from prior conflict, proposes to make and enforce the rules of the international game. But these rules continue to be self-serving -- selective national interests cloaked in terms of exclusive morality -- and their means of enforcement are military. Essentially, the new world order perpetuates the destructive characteristics of the old.
There is a need for collective security. But the failure to distinguish between that need and a policy of assuming the role of world policeman will be most costly. The international community, especially its economic superstars, must take a more active role than now evident when its security is at risk.
If the war's aim is the liberation of Kuwait and that aim is accomplished by the destruction of Iraq, how will the resulting power vacuum be filled? Do we foresee an occupation of that country while it is rebuilt? Will the occupation be directed against predatory designs from Iran and Syria as much as against a renewal of Iraqi power? Does the president really envision an American military presence in the Mideast for the foreseeable future? How many Lebanons are we willing to contemplate?
How will stability be built and maintained in the region after this war? Ancient conflicts fester between competing centers of power, between religious and tribal groups, between those with oil and those without, between Israel and the Arab powers and between Israel and the Palestinians, whose claims to nationhood will not disappear.
And finally, what will be the cost of the new world order for these United States? Will we be able to rebuild our cities, educate the young, retrain those who are losing employment in the world's economic restructuring, provide medical care for all at reasonable costs without coming to terms with the bill for the war?
The military may have the wherewithal to penetrate the darkness, but Desert Storm obscures and may well blind our political vision.
Gunther Wertheimer is a retired Baltimore businessman. 1/2