Something about the coming of spring seems to entice American leaders into visions of daring and the launching of military action.
In the spring of 1961, John F. Kennedy gave the go-ahead for the proxy Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. In the spring of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched Marines to the Dominican Republican and the first U.S. combat troops to the jungles of Vietnam. In the spring of 1970, Richard M. Nixon sent American forces into Cambodia. In the spring of 1980, Jimmy Carter ordered U.S. paramilitary forces into the Iranian desert.
Now, in the spring of 1986, Ronald Reagan has followed the script. He approved a military operation that has resulted in a combat situation and provided the United States an opportunity to strike hard at perceived foes.
The questions this spring are: why such provocative action now, and what next?
Acknowledgment of U.S. provocation, of course, is not part of the official line on what has been transpiring in the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast. The clash of arms resulted, according to White House spokesman Larry Speakes, because Libya attacked U.S. naval forces during "a peaceful navigational exercise in international waters by the United States."
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger likened the incident to someone being shot at while innocently strolling a public road. And in Turkey, Secretary of State George P. Shultz told reporters that the U.S. purpose in sending warships and fighters toward the Libyan coast was merely to reassert that oldest American principle of ensuring freedom of the seas anywhere on the globe.
No one argues about the correctness of that principle, nor of the U.S. right to navigate freely anywhere through recognized international sea and air space and of its right to protect itself by whatever means necessary. There appears to be no question, either, about who fired first. In that respect, this is not another Gulf of Tonkin engagement staged to give a pretext for U.S. military action. But anyone who believes this exercise in the Mediterranean Sea is only another routine naval maneuver designed to test U.S. military proficiency also subscribes to the belief that a woman can be half-pregnant.
The character of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, and what he represents in the bloody shadow world of international terrorism, is not at issue here. No Gandhi he. Qaddafi is a leper of the age and deserves to be treated as such.
The debate comes over far more complicated questions.
First is timing.
U.S. frustration at being unable to find legal grounds for striking at Qaddafi, especially after the outbreak of terrorist acts last year that resulted in Americans being held hostage and murdered in the Mideast, is understandable and well-known. But why this particular moment, months and months after the fact and an absence of similar episodes of terrorism, for the assembling of such a naval force so clearly provocative in nature and so evidently desirous of action?
Has Qaddafi dispatched more teams of assassins toward American shores? Is there any connection between the show of force off Libya and the current situation in Central America? Is it purely coincidence that American guns are firing against Qaddafi forces, stirring U.S. martial ardor at home, at the very moment when Congress is being asked for funds to combat the communist tide in Central America from spreading to U.S. borders?
Second are consequences, wisdom and rationale.
Are we needlessly stirring up a rattlesnake den? Are we setting in motion an inevitable wave of more fanatical acts of terrorism? Has the United States made the necessary case to enlist the support of its allies for this action? Has it leveled with its own citizens in stating the reasons for risking the lives of its servicemen and explaining what it hopes to achieve by such an operation?
These are questions without answers, and that's the problem.
If any lesson emerges from the series of military blunders that have bloomed in the spring, it is this: the American people are always supportive of leaders in times of crisis. They are not forgiving of administrations that fail to take the people into their confidence on actions affecting their lives and those of their children.