WASHINGTON - In 1975, Paul Warnke, who a year later would become Jimmy Carter's arms control director, published an article titled "Apes on a Treadmill," which summarized liberal thinking on the "lessons of Vietnam." Those "lessons" have sunk deep roots into liberal thinking and continue to hamper the sane conduct of foreign policy even as we contemplate a pre-emptive strike on Iraq.
Mr. Warnke asserted that "we need not and cannot be the world's policeman. ... Neither we nor any other outsiders are wise enough to decide for another people the course to which their aspirations should lead them. The continuing penumbra of the illusion that somehow we know best can only blur a sound perception of our true foreign policy interests."
He was, of course, addressing himself to the Cold War world and heaping scorn on the whole enterprise of resisting communism. But the liberal post-Vietnam mentality that has survived the Cold War includes a deep aversion to the muscular exercise of American power - except where such exercises bear no relation at all to our national interests.
Thus, in Haiti and Kosovo, liberal Democrats were eager to see U.S. power asserted. It was moral, they urged, precisely because it was so disinterested. (It is hard to reconcile this view with the simultaneous liberal aversion to being world cop, but the truth is that liberals didn't really mind being policemen, they objected only to fighting communists.)
Now we are faced with the threat of Iraq, and many Americans - not just those on the left - have difficulty accepting the use of our power. There are frequent allusions to the world cop question, and many warn that we might have to remain on the ground in Iraq for many years.
Yes, we may. But it's hard to think of a better use of American power right now. The Middle East, after all, is the region from which the most drastic threat to our welfare emanates. The reason it is such a cauldron of anti-Americanism is precisely that it is so despotic. Critics are right that a simple "butcher and bolt" approach such as imperial powers have used in the past (see Max Boot's new book, The Savage Wars of Peace) will not solve our problem.
If we hope to diffuse the fury of the Arab-Muslim world, we must be prepared to stay awhile and remake those societies.
Hold your e-mails. Sure, this may sound imperialistic. But it really isn't imperialism - no more than remaking postwar Germany and Japan was. By introducing democracy, pluralism and freedom to those countries, we didn't create colonies, far less possessions. We simply liberated the people from detestable governments.
That's what we're doing in Afghanistan today. We remained in Europe and Japan as long as we did because of the Soviet threat, not because nation-building requires a 40-year commitment. But if 40 years is what it takes, it's certainly worth it. Our presence in Europe and Japan kept the world far freer and more peaceful - and thus safer for us - than it otherwise would have been.
More than anything else, the Middle East desperately needs an infusion of democracy, opportunity and freedom. Iraq is an ideal place to set an example.
Its people are relatively secular and more literate than those in many other Arab nations. Iraq has plenty of oil, and it is strategically located at the crossroads of three poisonous regimes - Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Since we must prevent Saddam Hussein from transferring weapons of mass destruction to our terrorist enemies, and since the only way to do so is to overthrow him, it would be stupid to allow him to be replaced by another tyrant.
There is not a single Arab democracy in the world today - and the sheiks and potentates who currently rule are none too happy about the idea of a democratic Iraq. That, far more than Arab fraternalism, explains Saudi Arabia's hostility to toppling Mr. Hussein.
As for the Europeans, who constantly stress their attention to "root causes" of terrorism, what better way to address root causes than to replace the vicious regimes that now oppress the Arab people with more enlightened ones? It's not nation-building - it's freedom-sowing.
Mona Charen's syndicated column appears Mondays in The Sun.
Columnist Jules Witcover is on vacation.