In the use of military force, democracies often sacrifice efficiency to purchase legitimacy. It seems especially imperative for post-Vietnam America to be seen to exhaust, redundantly, the economic and diplomatic "alternatives," which actually are nothing of the sort.
In 63 months in office, Ronald Reagan, who came to office with an unearned reputation for recklessness, has disproved the suspicion that he is eager to use U.S military assets. The use of them against Libya marks another stage in the slow emancipation of the United States from several servitudes. One involves the "lessons" of Vietnam. Another involves misplaced multilateralism.
The "lessons" of Vietnam, according to people who most insistently invoke them, are self-evident and unanimous in raising doubts about the morality and utility of military force. However, the Reagan administration has many members who believe that one lesson of Vietnam is that violence is not necessarily economized by delaying it or administering it in minute doses.
In Vietnam, violence was unnecessarily protracted and futile because it was administered in accordance with theories that were too clever by half. Finely calibrated escalations and pauses were supposed to manipulate and educate the enemy. But the enemy correctly read the cleverness as irresolution.
Today the wrong question is: Did the raid "teach Qaddafi a lesson"? Gracious. Americans have an agreeable belief in public education, but there should be limits. Americans desire a foreign policy that is didactic or therapeutic, instructing or curing difficult regimes. However, Reagan has wisely applied to the raid the rhetoric of preemptive deflation, warning that it was not supposed to solve, at a stroke, the problem ofterrorism. His most important words were these seven: "If necessary, we shall do it again."
Qaddafi's terrorism has been a success, so far. It has been giving him what he seeks from it: pleasure and prominence. Ideally, repeated U.S. military actions should put him in the position of the pitcher who stood on the mound 60 feet, six inches from the plate and threw the pitch that became Willie Mays' first home run. The pitcher said: "For the first 60 feet it was a hell of a pitch." Qaddafi may still be ahead, but the United States has just begun to swing at him.
Or so one must hope. He is the problem, and he probably cannot be tamed or deterred. He must be removed.
Libya is less a political than a geological phenomenon: it is a military caste floating on a sea of oil. Devalue the latter and you can destabilize the former. The targets hit by U.S. bombers were appropriate but inadequate: most of their value as targets was symbolic. Military assets such as barracks and training bases can be easily replaced. Better targets would have been the installations essential to the oil exports that finance the contentment of Qaddafi's officers.
A sword once drawn is not easily sheathed, so it is well to wonder whether the world would not be better off if, in 1982, Israel had been encouraged to sweep through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a source of Syrian terrorism. Among sources of terrorism, Syria is worse than Libya. However, the slow, stately minuet of diplomacy that preceded the long-delayed response to Libyan terrorism has at least helped with two "So what?" questions.
It is said that an attack against Qaddafi guarantees him rhetorical support from Arab nations and reveals that the United States cannot bring along its allies. To both facts the right response is a question: So what?
An ancillary benefit of the raid is a demonstration -- redundant, one would have thought -- that, as a political force, the "Arab world" is a figment of the imaginations of people eager to find reasons for the United States not to respond to terrorism. And the primary benefit of the raid was the demonstration that the United States will not forever use multilateralism as a cover for inaction.
It is hard to feel dismay about the fact that the U.S. raid caused collateral damage to the French Embassy in Tripoli. France is, with Italy, especially conspicuous among the U.S. allies that practice appeasement of terrorists in order to deflect violence toward Americans.
This week France complicated U.S. self-defense by refusing to allow U.S. aircraft to fly over France. In the 1980s, the Fifth Republic is free to behave as badly as the Third Republic did in the 1930s because the United States is unlike France. It is unlike France not only in scale, but also in kind, for which France should be thankful.