Intervention Fatigue

NO ONE SHOULD BE SURPRISED THAT THE CITIZENS OF this country are having an attack of intervention fatigue. However vast and dominating our international paw print may be as an economic superpower, we are just not good at 19th-century-type military, colonialesque adventures. And given the way we are jerked around by politicians and press on what are called foreign-policy crises these days, it is a wonder the fatigue hasn't set in before. The trouble is that we may end up being as indiscriminate in our aversion to engagement overseas as we were in our former eager-beaver willingness to intervene practically everywhere. Right now we are in mid-flounder. Minus the Soviet Union and Hitler's hungry war machine before it, rationales for our involvement in foreign conflicts have to be improvised and then beaten, pushed and dragged to some semblance of national consensus. But such consensus gets evermore fragile.There are a bunch of obvious reasons why this is so.

First, half the time we are being urged to leap into the affairs of a place we have only dimly ever even heard of, if we have heard of it at all. Second, we are regularly told, all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, that the political fate of this place and/or its people is parlous and of life-and-death concern to us. Then, as abruptly as it burst upon us, after the requisite involvement, it will vanish from our politicians' consciousness and the news. Could anyone here please tell me how the 1983 crisis in Chad came out? Third, we expect unstinting gratitude, not to mention moral perfection, from the side in the conflict with which we align ourselves. Big surprise: we get neither, only hurt feelings.

Let me share a paragraph I read in the paper the other day in a story that was warning of yet another terrible danger spot about which I was meant to worry: "Thousands of jubilant supporters lined the route of Gamsakhurdia's motorcade into Zugdidi, the regional capital of the western province of Mingrelia...More than 100 civilians have been killed in Sukhumi in the past 10 days in shelling by Abkhazian forces." I am always as prepared to worry as the next person, but maybe the next person knows something I don't. For except for formerly Soviet Georgia, where all this was said to be taking place, there was not a single proper noun in sight that meant anything to me.

We Americans are weak on geography and even rudimentary knowledge of many of the great cultures around the world, blissfully distant from most of the world's continuously churning conflicts and a little bit complacent in our ignorance. Bosnia-Herzegovina, until very recently, was merely a joke phrase in our language, the example of some silly, antique jurisdiction. I can still remember the day in the early 1950s when I started reading screaming headlines that Dien Bien Phu was about to fall. That was the presumably impregnable French military redoubt in Vietnam. We all immediately went around saying how terrible this was, having never heard of it till that very day. There were to be other places--notably what we instantly learned to call "breakaway Katangaa" and "copper-rich Kasai" provinces in the Congo--that occupied us; there were the Taiwanese/Chinese rock-islands Quemoy and Matsu for whose proprietorship we were more or less asked to be willing to die in the same era, and so forth. We all immediately had opinions about all of these places, greatly in excess of our information.

It is the combination of this unfamiliarity and the suddenly proclaimed urgency of these places that, after a time, has begun to make skeptics of us all. It is my no doubt imperfect recollection that that area known as the Plain of jars in Laos repeatedly fell during the Indochinese war, seemingly never to be retrieved by our side; it just mysteriously kept falling after it had already fallen the year before, each time heralded by end-of-the-world official and journalistic prose--and then was filed under 0 for oblivion. Dire consequences, freely predicted, sometimes never came to pass. But if they did, we oddly paid next to no attention to them and went on to the next place, as we more or less forgot Vietnam.

Finally we have our romantic and all too easily bruised attitudes toward the people who live (and quarrel) in the places where we involve ourselves. We expect our allies, clients, subjects, friends and wards around the world to be model civil libertarians and, above all, to love us. I make fun of the instinct, yet I think it is not wholly without justification. We act in our national interest and not out of sheer altruism and sometimes we have gotten the purpose and the moral values very wrong.

But our history in this century has been marked by enormous, costly exertions for the sake of saving and helping others, including those who had started wars against us, devastated our allies and incurred an almost unimaginable toll in human life. What we seem able to do is forgive them everything-what they did in the war, what it cost us to help them after-except the fact they turn out to be your basic, normal, self-serving, errorprone, often infuriating people after all.

But at least in the case of World War II and the cold war, the great power conflicts had a certain continuity to them; they arose, they persisted, they were there over time. We knew what they were and we knew what we feared. Now it is as if we dart from place to place at an accelerated speed, proclaiming this guy a hero, that guy a monster and so forth and from time to time discovering that neither entirely fits the bill. People are sick of it and confused; they are inclining to a one-size-fits-all phooey, a to-hell-with-the-whole-lot-of-them attitude that would be a great mistake. American security interests and, yes, humanitarian purposes are still very much alive and deserving respect, and it is possible to define them. But they tend to get lost in the razzle-dazzle of instantly proclaimed and instantly called-off foreign crises. We are not naturally suited to the old colonialist swagger through distant, turbulent parts of the world, imposing some sort of Pax Americana. And anyway, that sort of stuff went out decades ago. If the administration does not finally want to be overwhelmed in its foreign policy by a tide of hostile public opinion, it really needs to know how to make an honest, compelling case for those interventions it deems necessary and how to let go of the rest.