From Force, a Question of Consequences

<i> Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly</i>

The final verdict on Monday night’s raid is a long way from being written. Administration planners make a reasonable case that the attack on Libya may lay groundwork for an overthrow of strong man Moammar Kadafi, thereby shrinking--if not smashing--world terrorism and making Ronald Reagan look like a combination of Henry A. Kissinger and George S. Patton Jr. Certainly the President has historical precedents aplenty for his decision to mount a show of force against Tripoli. Over the centuries, the pirates and bandits of that part of the world have never respected anything less. Never.

But another argument can be made, equally plausible, that the U.S. strike at Libya is fraught with risk. And despite its cheers, the American public is mindful of that, leaving the wisdom and ultimate political fallout of the attack still unclear. While brand-new NBC News polls give the President 69% approval for his actions, a 40% plurality of those sampled believe the attack on Libya will cause more rather than less terrorism.

Even Republican politicians share these uncertainties. In the wake of the raid, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) suggested that we have started down a road where there is no turning back. House Minority leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) observed, “We are in a new kind of war here, breaking new ground. I have to express some concern. What is the next step? What if it comes from another country? What is the retaliation?” And James R. Schlesinger, secretary of defense under President Gerald R. Ford, compared this decision--for the use of military force to raise the price of Libya’s misbehavior--with the similar choice President Lyndon B. Johnson made in Vietnam two decades ago.

Therein lies the key. A watershed line has been crossed. The President’s first-round, limited anti-terrorist actions in resolving the TWA hostages crisis last summer and in using U.S. military aircraft last autumn to force down the Egyptian plane carrying hijackers of the Achille Lauro were enormously popular. Pollster Louis Harris found 85% American approval for Reagan’s handling of the Achille Lauro episode. But these were also one-shot, containable displays of diplomacy or prowess. By contrast, the raids on Libya--with at least one of Kadafi’s children dead in the rubble--may open Pandora’s Box.


Psychologically, the attack consummates a five-year trend in which Reagan has abandoned the late 1970s policy of weakness and hand-wringing, so embarrassing to Americans during the 1979-80 Iranian hostages crisis. Back in 1983, when the President mounted an invasion to rescue Grenada from unstable Marxist leadership, the public cheered. When he used tough tactics against international terrorism in 1985, public opinion recorded equally overwhelming support. And in recent months, when the President has quoted macho lines from Clint Eastwood and from Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies, the American public has liked that, too.

Maybe they have liked it too much. By 1983-84, in the wake of Grenada, U.S. foreign policy had recovered a sound, balanced willingness to use force. Now, however, one can argue that Rambo-like responses to terrorism have scored so well in the opinion polls as to draw the White House toward a tactical addiction. Resurgent macho goes a long way to explain the recent dynamics of U.S. movement into confrontation with a Kadafi who Reagan plausibly labels “the mad dog of the Middle East.”

Some weeks back, the President sent U.S. warships into the Gulf of Sidra, all but playing a game of “I dare you.” After that, when Kadafi “dared” us back by orchestrating the bombing of a Berlin nightclub full of American soldiers, some attack like the one mounted on Monday night was inevitable.

Inevitable, because the United States had to act or lose Rambo-era credibility. And also, fortunately, justifiable under international law. But wise? The consummation of a well-thought-out policy? Not really. Escalation of tension with a rogue state like Libya and a warped, would-be messiah like Kadafi could precipitate more problems than it solves.


International reaction, albeit not necessarily a valid yardstick, suggests caution. Britain, Canada and Israel alone have supported the U.S. attack. French and Spanish allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization refused to let U.S. aircraft overfly their territory, and some commentators suggest the U.S. attack and its aftermath may jeopardize the NATO military alliance itself. Moreover, pro-American politicians in Europe genuinely worry that the locally unpopular attack will boost anti-American leftist politicians, undercutting friendly governments and regional U.S. military arrangements alike. And in the Middle East, a major disillusionment with the United States is being reported among moderate Arabs.

But if Administration forecasts prove correct, then the expected near-term upsurge in terrorism will fade once Libya realizes that the United States is again willing to use force to reestablish elements of Pax Americana--America’s global police role of the Eisenhower era. Let us hope so. The problem is that reality has changed: Pax Americana worked 30 years ago, when Europe listened to White House “requests” and the Arab states were little more than quaint stopovers on Holy Land tours. Now, the mid-1980s deterioration of order and authority presents very different circumstances.

As a matter of history, from the last centuries of Rome down to the final decades of Czarist Russia, terrorism and piracy have been recurrent afflictions of fading empires. And public frustration has sometimes produced Rambo-like reactions, too. The unnerving possibility is that the U.S.-Libyan confrontation may go down in history as an extension-- not a reversal--of an ebb that began a quarter-century ago in Vietnam.