Anyone who has ever been in love knows what it's like to wait for the phone to ring. It's an agonizing feeling, made worse by the realization that the initiative -- control -- is not your own. Waiting and weakness often go hand in hand. Power has passed to someone else.
The Persian Gulf is no telephone and the Iran-Iraq war is no love affair, but otherwise the essentials of the old heartbreak scenario are present. The United States, arguably the most powerful nation on earth, has its navy plying the Persian Gulf like someone waiting for the phone to ring. We await a call from the ayatollah.
Whether the Madman of Tehran will do anything provocative has yet to be seen. Khomeini is a caldron of invective, a zealot for whom human life means nothing. He is incredibly stubborn because he is convinced he serves God and not man. He takes what we like to call the long view. To Khomeini that view starts in antiquity and proceeds past the horizon to the paradise where martyrs go. F. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich were different from you and me. Had he met the ayatollah, he would have been at a loss for words.
This then is our fix: we await the response of a zealot. Already, one of the supertankers ''reflagged'' with the Stars and Stripes at Kuwait's request has hit a mine. Another tanker, this one carrying Iranian oil, also hit a mine. A U.S. Navy fighter fired two missiles at an Iranian aircraft ''perceived'' to be acting in a threatening way -- but missed.
What will happen next? It's impossible to predict. Maybe nothing. Maybe Iran is cowed by the United States and its high-tech armada. Or maybe it's content to have us keep the Persian Gulf open to all shipping. Iraq and its ally, Kuwait, can use pipelines to ship oil. Not so Iran. The Gulf is its highway to the outside world, and the United States has obligingly kept it open. Iran is selling more oil than ever before. Maybe we ought to demand a commission.
Once before, the United States found itself in a similar fix. In 1983, Marines were dispatched to Beirut. They were supposed to be part of a peace-keeping force, an effort to show the flag -- to prove that we were a great power. But that mission, too, had no tangible goal. Marines, trained to be aggressive, encamped near the Beirut airport and waited. On Oct. 23, a zealot drove a bomb-laden truck into the Marine barracks and killed 241 servicemen. By February 1984, the United States had pulled out of Lebanon.
The Persian Gulf operation is disturbingly like the Beirut one. Once again, we wait for a zealot to strike. Once again, the initiative has passed to someone else. Once again, we have effectively taken sides in a war in which we had once proclaimed our high-minded neutrality. In the Gulf, we have in effect sided with Iraq and against Iran, the country whose elusive moderates we so recently wooed with gifts of arms.
If the United States under Ronald Reagan were a person, it would be a braggart. All our recent foreign adventures, especially those involving the military, have been accompanied by crowing that we are -- dammit -- a great power. Of course we are. But so is the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, Britain and France. They all have warships in the Gulf region, and, in fact, a Soviet vessel was damaged by a mine. Yet these nations manage to do what's necessary without beating the drums.
In contrast, the United States announced both its ''reflagging'' and escort operation at the highest decibel -- a virtual taunt directed at Iran. It was characteristic of the White House that while it would not officially confirm that an American plane had fired on an Iranian one, it did say the president was awakened with the news. Once again, the chip went on our shoulder. C'mon, Iran, knock it off.
The unanswerable questions that perplexed the United States in Lebanon, and before that in Vietnam, are present in the Gulf: What constitutes success? What constitutes victory? What, precisely, do we seek to do? And what is our timetable for doing it? So far, the administration has provided no answers to any of these questions. At what point do we pull out of the Gulf? Is it when all parties guarantee freedom of the seas? That's an admirable objective, but it happens to benefit Iran most of all, and Iran is our adversary.
All this uncertainty -- including what our response to an Iranian attack would be -- results from a childish preoccupation with the appearance of being a great power. But appearances are not goals. We have put a fleet into the Persian Gulf because we are strong and can do so. But now that it's there, it waits for the ayatollah to make his move. That, like the heart-sore person who waits for the phone to ring, may be the appearance of strength. But it is the essence of weakness