American brawn can't go wrong - right?


CHICAGO - The rest of the world may be opposed to a U.S. attack on Iraq, but here in America, there is general agreement that we are right and everybody else on Earth is wrong.

American public opinion was in favor of taking out Saddam Hussein after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it still is. Who cares if this war, which we intend to fight for the good of humanity, doesn't appeal to most of humanity?

Polls suggest that a large majority of Americans endorses the Bush administration's drive toward war.

Why do Americans take such a different view from Europeans and other pesky foreigners? One reason is that we have great faith in our own good intentions, and no amount of contact with reality can shake that confidence. Right now, we're prepared to do whatever is necessary to rebuild Iraq as a peaceful and prosperous country. Never mind that we had the same mission in mind for Afghanistan, but lost interest about 10 minutes after the Taliban fell. A short memory is a great boon to self-esteem.

George W. Bush himself, who once scorned nation-building, now offers himself as the nation-builder extraordinaire. His mission is not just to remove a menace, but to plant a flowering democracy that will blow the seeds of liberation across the region.

Skeptics abroad have their doubts, both about our motives and our staying power. That has something to do with all the Middle Eastern dictators we've been happy to snuggle with over the years out of lust for their oil. If we wanted to promote human rights in the Arab world, we could have started with Saudi Arabia, whose ruling family is repressive enough to make the late General Franco look like Captain Kangaroo.

Let's face it: Human rights and democracy have never been a big factor in our foreign policy. We have no trouble working with the military dictator who rules Pakistan. We don't mind seeking help on North Korea from China, which is about as democratic as an Alabama jail. President Bush has forged a partnership with Russia's Vladimir Putin even though his tactics against rebels in Chechnya would make a buzzard retch.

Americans undoubtedly approve of invading Iraq because, as American Enterprise Institute polling expert Karlyn Bowman puts it, "people have known Saddam Hussein for a decade and think he's a thug." But they also start from the assumption that taking care of him will be easy.

They have that belief for a simple reason: In recent decades, almost all our military ventures have been successful and virtually painless. The Persian Gulf war spilled amazingly little American blood, given the scale of the undertaking. U.S. soldiers in Bosnia were less likely to die than U.S. soldiers not in Bosnia. Not a single American boy or girl died in the war in Kosovo. Those interventions that have gone badly (Somalia, Lebanon) were so brief and small-scale that they can be forgotten.

To understand that America can fail badly in a war, you have to be old enough to remember the endless, pointless carnage of Vietnam. That's why, in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, the highest support for the Iraq invasion comes from 18-to-34-year-olds, while the lowest comes from those 65 or older. It's hard for a lot of Americans, particularly young ones, to imagine things going very wrong - either during the war or in the occupation that follows. So war has regained its allure of romance and glory.

If you wonder why people support the war, you might consider why people buy SUVs. It's not because SUVs fill an urgent practical need, but because they carry an aura that a lot of Americans like to project: brawny, rugged, fearless. Enthusiasm for this war serves likewise to convey toughness and bravery in a manner requiring no effort.

It's no surprise that two-thirds of men favor military action, compared with only half of women. Tough guys aren't afraid of a little bloodshed, at least if it's on the other side of the planet. Only women and wimps - like those effeminate Europeans - bother looking for ways to avoid a fight.

But pride goeth before a fall, and if Americans persist in launching military crusades around the globe, we'll eventually rediscover that they can end tragically. That's a lesson only experience can teach.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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