I remember a picture -- an official White House photo taken in 1975 during the Ford administration. It showed Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld and two other officials, dressed in formal wear, exulting in news they had just received about the U.S. attempt to rescue sailors from the Mayaguez, a ship captured by communist Cambodians. The rescue operation, as it turned out, was something of a botch.
Hard to tell, though, from that picture. Kissinger is leaning back in a broad smile; Rumsfeld is beside himself with laughter; Ford, holding a pipe, is gesturing and laughing; and Robert McFarlane, then a staff member of the National Security Council, obviously thinking the matter so funny is -- pictures do not lie -- smiling weakly. Since then he has learned to control himself.
But not the Reagan administration. For more than a week, it has been playing out its own version of that night. In exquisite bad taste, it has shown the same capacity to celebrate the odious. White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan even had a joke to tell. He said a friend of his had suggested new lyrics for the Marine Hymn: "From the Halls of Montezuma to what's left of Tripoli." It is reported that no one laughed.
As for the Defense Department, it has almost daily released information celebratory of the Libya strike. Unmentioned in all the hurrays for this or that technical feat is the fact that civilians were killed, that some of the F111 planes from England did not drop their bombs and one of them did not return. Two American servicemen were killed.
Americans have been treated to war as a televised video game. On the TV screen, we zoomed in on the coast and then swung toward the barracks where Muammar Qaddafi is said to live. We passed it once, and then doubled back at something like nine miles a second and -- there! -- released our bombs. In the corner of the screen, you could see nine little bombs, just like in the video games, and then -- Kerpow! -- you were told they hit. The president says we may have to play again.
And so we may. It may be our only recourse -- something we have to do because we can think of nothing else to do, nothing that will work. There is no sense of obligation in some of the statements coming from the administration -- no sense that we are off into something where the end is unknown. Already, hostages have been murdered in Lebanon; a U.S. diplomat shot in Khartoum; and the U.S. maneuvered into being seen by much of the Arab world as a colonialist-Zionist caricature. In attempting to control events, we just may have lost control of them. This is the way it is sometimes.
Official Washington, though, seems to have little appreciation of this. When it is not busy celebrating a military victory over a sandbox nation ruled by a kook in a doorman's uniform, it is thinking of ways to compound the problem by showing contempt for history. House and Senate Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, have introduced legislation that would give the president an even freer hand to respond to terrorist attacks. In an unintended assessment of their own worth, these Republicans would no longer require the president to consult with Congress before sending U.S. troops into a hostile situation.
But if the strike against Libya proves anything, it is how much the president ought to consult with Congress. With every day, the second-guessers are looking better and wiser. If ever there was a time to ensure the maximum participation of people with wisdom, experience and a different point of view, it is now. Instead, some members of Congress can hardly wait to give the president carte blanche, and some journalists seem to equate reflection and dissent with cowardice and virtual treason. The fashions of the 1950s are back in more than just clothing.
War is ugly and the celebration of it nearly as ugly. The raid on Libya was necessary, but it is hardly a cause for celebration, a reason to ignore history, or a rationale for squelching criticism. The United States did what it thought it had to do -- just as it did in 1975 when 41 U.S. servicemen died attempting to rescue 39 captured seamen who may have been already freed. That incident should serve as a reminder. The first laugh is easy. The last one is best.