As the Tehran situation grew tenser, a debate developed within the administration concerning the virtues and vices of "normality" as an instrument for the hostages' release. Were they more likely to get out if the current, highly focused emergency atmosphere were maintained or if a gloss of "normality" were permitted to overlay their condition -- a kind of settled-in, long-term, unexcited effort to secure their release? When I inquired into the controversy, the "abnormals" were prevailing, those who felt the worst thing you could do would be to lower the heat, to allow the plight of the hostages to acquire a humdrum aspect of business as usual. "Normal," after all, is just a hairbreadth away from "legitimate" or "acceptable."
What struck me interesting about this was that the more you meditated on possible outcomes -- none of them very good, including the best -- and the more you inquired about post-emergency conditions, the more you realized a basic truth: things aren't going back to normal, even when this crisis has been resolved. Thanks to Ayatollah Khomeini & Co., perceptions of the world have changed. Old normal -- it sounds like a whiskey -- has gone down the drain.
Mainly it is a matter of used-up cliches. People in this city had come to deal in them in an especially mindless and unexploring way. "Interdependence" for years now has been a glowing ideal, and applause word, whereby you recognize the oneness of humankind and global relationships and things like that. But it also turns out to mean dependence on some tough customers for raw materials and resources and financial stability. The administration isn't planning to get off the world when this crisis is over. But I don't think you are going to be hearing many hymns to "interdependence" either. Another cliche, "the oil weapon," has come to disagreeable life. The peril of the American (and European and Japanese) condition has been made vivid and real. I think this is going to alter the whole way the government thinks about and deals with energy. (If it doesn't, the government should be replaced -- at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.)
There will be three principal elements in the altered idea of normality, and one will be expectations and obligations related to that grand old crowd known, majestically, as The Alliance. The Western Europeans and the Japanese were not exactly leading the list of administration favorites last week. The complaint was always the same: that they had done only what was asked and at the minimum edge of the requests.Talking about the wretched lot of the hostages, one top presidential person mused, "If not this, you have to ask what it would take to get them active."
Since at least 1973, however, it should have been evident what the energy-imposed limits of the so-called alliance were. As another White House assistant, reversing the reality, asks: "What do you think we would do? How far would we go to endanger our relations with all those countries if 50 British or Japanese hostages were being held?" The cold-bath realization here is not that the peerless allies aren't so peerless after all, but rather that the conception of the alliance itself is much overblown in current usage, that we are not family, but friends and that our mutual-defense arrangements are just that -- and not a whole lot more.
So politicians will be much less sentimental about the alliance. They will also be less sentimental and fantasy-ridden about "defense." That is the second big change this episode is likely to bring about. It's not just that our Poseidons and Minuteman III missiles don't buy much in this kind of conflict. It's that our theater weapons, our conventional forces -- all those gold-plated, quadruple-purpose, technologically wondrous planes and guns that can do everything but shed real tears and say "Mama" -- don't count for much either in a situation like the one we are in.
There is already talk, as there should be, of changing this, of earmarking funds for special readiness forces that are mean and mobile and able to move effectively to deal -- pinpoint fashion -- with truly unconventional assaults of this kind. Hearing it, however, I get a vaguely sinking feeling that the danger here is one of extravagant enthusiasm.Special Forces soldiers took part in the ceremonies at John F. Kennedy's funeral. They and associated counterinsurgency troops were thought at the time to be the wave of our future in combating adversaries whose strength was not, strictly speaking, military. A leap of faith to vastly enlarged or improved readiness forces could be as misleading and destructive as that was. Islamabad, Tripoli, the thousands of Americans and Europeans in the region -- what kind of bloody mass reprisals would be set off by gunsmoke military action? And what, finally, do we gain? Ayatollah Khomeini, Col. Quaddafi et al. are fighting us with the threat of cutting off oil from the West and Japan -- not with guns.
A less reflexive approach to arms spending, in other words, will likely have been forced by Tehran events. And this will not merely be a dose of realism administered to those who equate an upward curve of arms spending with an upward curve in security, no matter what the money is spent on. The relevance of much of our weaponry and force structure may have been called into question by events in Iran, but so has much of the hearts-and-minds, God-is-love, less-is-better thinking that has passed in some places for an alternative military strategy. I don't mean to suggest that Jimmy Carter's administration is going for the heavy-combat stuff just when its usefulness has been proved marginal at best. But something sunny and cheerful and optimistic about the way you deal with the rest of the world has most certainly dropped out of the White House mental baggage.
I have saved, or more accurately put off, this third element -- the president himself -- for last, because I am so skeptical of these perennial, breathless accounts of how some president has been "changed" by events. Still, by all accounts, he has been. That curiously mechanistic view of folks in a vast homogenous realm called the Third World who can be manipulated and appeased by our good intentions has evidently crashed. And as a result, Carter has really been pushed back on his own resources. There's not a cliche of the left or the right, of the doves or the hawks, that is of any use to guide him or instruct him.
In a way, the toughest outcome would be that which had the happiest features: a safe return of the captured Americans. The president is known to feel that would still require a strong reaction from this country, by way of protecting against repeat abuses elsewhere in the future. He also knows that he would have to act in a way that would not wreak havoc and destruction on western interests and on our friends in the region. All that may be a long way off. If you are waiting for things to go back to old normal, don't hold your breath.