David Sewell of Cleveland, Tenn., was interviewed the other night on National Public Radio about his hobby -- passing on computer messages to the troops in Saudi Arabia. But nothing about that really caught my interest. Instead it was something he said about his son, a soldier in the Gulf: his boy was fulfilling a moral obligation.

"Moral" is my word. Sewell never spoke it. He was asked, though, what he thought of the war now that his son was in it. This is what he said: "I know that my son is in harm's way, but I feel that we have an obligation to other countries."

Now you may think the United States is not doing the right thing in the Gulf and that Sewell and countless others have bought a load of hooey from President Bush. I disagree -- but no matter. What's striking about Sewell's statement is that he not once mentioned oil or anything else suggesting self-interest -- not even an echo of the hawk's argument during Vietnam that if America did not make a stand in Southeast Asia, it would have to do so in San Francisco. Instead, his remarks suggested altruism.

I suppose an argument could be made that such altruism can be dangerous -- that it is akin to a moral arrogance that occasionally creeps into President Bush's statements. But when Sewell, or the millions of other Americans who the polls tell us feel the same way, speaks, "arrogance" is not the word that comes to mind. Instead, contrast both his words and his tone with the evident apathy or, if you will, amorality, of some foreign voices.

Japan, for instance, seems genuinely befuddled by the American involvement in the Gulf. It apparently recognizes no moral obligation to come to the aid of a conquered nation or, for that matter, to uphold the rule of law. Even its own self-interest -- it is more dependent on Middle East oil than the United States -- leaves it blase: it will pay more if it has to.

This altruism is a relatively new phenomenon. Ringing statements aside, most of our wars reeked of self-interest -- everything from self-defense to an attempt to extend America hegemony, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Even World War II, fought against a Nazi evil so great it remains to this day almost incomprehensible, was not an American fight until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But say what you will about the Gulf War, it's hard to argue that self-interest -- either self-defense or selfishness -- is the primary factor. In fact, this may be the first war the United States has fought since World War I that's mostly about an idea -- the rule of law -- and moral values, a repugnance at Saddam Hussein and his brutal methods.

But if altruism explains American support for a war in a far-off place, why does that same altruism seem to be entirely missing when it comes to domestic matters? Why would someone be willing to put a child in harm's way overseas but not to dig a little deeper to bail out the ghetto or even take an interest in it? Surely there are many explanations -- racial animosity among them -- but one has to be a lack of presidential leadership.

It's ironic that Bush was once faulted for not explaining why he sent troops to the Gulf. It now seems that the American people understood all along. What's more to the point, and more mystifying, is why neither he nor a potential Democratic presidential candidate feel they can tap American altruism when it comes to domestic matters. A president who can rouse Americans to support a war where self-interest is not the primary factor could at least attempt to mobilize public opinion on the domestic front as well.

But we get no indication from Bush that he will attempt anything of the sort. As for leading Democrats, they are equally silent. The word "sacrifice," uttered with abandon when it comes to fighting abroad, is never mentioned when it comes to tackling the problems America faces at home. In order to do something about the appalling infant mortality rate in the inner city, for instance, the administration would take money from other programs for poor pregnant women -- not from more affluent Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt could teach Bush a thing or two. His greatness rests on the twin pillars of triumph abroad and triumph at home -- a willingness to use the moral suasion of the presidency on both fronts. Bush has within his grasp the former but not the latter. If greatness is what he seeks -- and what president doesn't? -- then he would be well advised to examine the sentiments of plain Americans.

David Sewell would sacrifice his son for an idea: a better world. Surely, he could be convinced to sacrifice something less valuable -- a few more bucks -- for yet another idea: a better America. It's hard to argue that self-interest is the primary factor in this war.