As Violeta Barrios de Chamorro marks the first anniversary of her election to the presidency of Nicaragua this week, that war-torn country seems further from ever from peace and prosperity. While the Sandinistas were in power, Nicaragua was a high priority in United States foreign policy, and the Reagan administration went to breathtaking lengths to supply arms for the contras to undermine that regime. Now, however, the Sandinistas are out of power and Chamarro's democratically elected government is struggling for its life -- in part because some $500 million in aid it expected from the United States has been slow in arriving. Meanwhile, across the globe, the United States has put on an impressive show in the Persian Gulf, demonstrating beyond a doubt what this country can accomplish when it sets priorities and sticks to them.
The success of the Gulf War and the cautionary tale of Nicaragua tell a pointed story: Cast the problem in terms of armed struggle, and the U.S. is ready to pay the price. But when the time comes to build the conditions that make for peace, attention lags.
Apply that lesson to domestic politics and the question of commitment hits painfully close to home. As Nicholas Lemann points out in the March issue of the Atlantic magazine, there is little doubt that the looming tragedy of this country is the fate of so many people in its inner cities who simply have not found a productive place in American society. Likewise, Lemann argues, once we wipe away the pessimism that characterizes so much of our thinking about poverty and race, there is little doubt that there are programs and policies that can relieve the misery of the ghettos -- and thus dramatically improve conditions in many areas of American life.
The War on Poverty may have largely failed, but it did teach us a lot about what works and what doesn't. If this country chooses to, it can harness those lessons and channel energy and resources into building communities that are conducive to peaceful, productive lives. Or it can continue to ignore the violence and despair that has turned too many areas of this country into battlefields. In other words, this country faces two kinds of war. It's not enough to win only one.