On Saturday, it seemed that the world could go no further in showing that the "new world order" is a joke. There was Congress voting as it always has when lawmakers start using the presence of troops as a reason for going to war. The contest was between national memories of World War II and Vietnam, and World War II won.
Hitler was invoked, Neville Chamberlain exhumed, appeasement excoriated on the floor. But they voted as on Vietnam. A vote for war, they said earnestly, was a vote for peace. As in those endless years of bombing pauses and peace demonstrations, a vote for war was the "safe" vote, despite the manifest danger to 400,000 Americans in the desert.
Voting with the Democratic leadership of both houses was risky. What if George Bush was right about a short, sharp war? Many professed to know exactly how Saddam Hussein would react to the "holiday" that a decision to stay with sanctions would give him.
There was more drama in the corridors than on the floor. The lobbyists were of a special character. Many of them were women; there was no mistaking their identity. One woman exploded with an expletive when a guard told her that Vice President Quayle had just gone up the stairs.
"I wanted to show him this," she said, brandishing a framed picture of two men in uniform, "my husband and my father, both over there. I wanted him to see who he's going to kill when he votes to kill."
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) was cornered by a group of women whose leader introduced them as from the Military Family Network. "Why did you vote for war?" she quavered. "My husband is there and. . . . " But she broke down and could not go on. Behind her was a woman who sobbed to the senator, "My son is not a throwaway."
"Of course, he isn't," murmured the senator, and hurried off.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) -- who had helped to draft the resolution with the name of Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) on it, but changed his mind to support the president -- was ambushed by a group of women who remonstrated with him. He urged them to pray with him, and they stood by the Senate elevators with their arms locked around each other at shoulder level and prayed together.
Inside the chamber, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), wearing a brown suit and a poker face, led the charge for sanctions. Republicans, who had one defection, sniffed that Nunn was acting out of presidential ambition, and they noted with satisfaction that Al Gore of Tennesee had voted the other way and laid claim to the "Defense Democrat"mantle. Nunn's defeat was a special pleasure: his celebrated status as commander in chief of the Senate was dented; the myth of his invincibility with fellow southerners was gone. Of the 10 Democrats who broke ranks with the leadership and voted for war, seven were from the South.
Senators literally stood up to be counted on Saturday. They rose from their chairs seconds before their names were called and answered with unique gravity. There was no elation in either chamber when the president won. Congress had long since lost its chance to make a difference. The time to matter was two days after the election when the president doubled troop levels. For some reason, the size of the force mandated for many its use in battle. Somehow it had become unthinkable to bring them back. To vote for sanctions, in the mad old logic of Vietnam, had become a vote to abandon our brave fighting men and women.
In the "new world order," the United States must still run the world. Nothing had changed, really, and the day after this melancholy manifestation, Washington woke up to more of the same. We were back to 1956 and tanks rumbling down the boulevards of Hungary, where a brave people asked for freedom. We were back to 1968, when Soviet tanks extinguished the "Prague Spring."
In Lithuania, where they really believed in the "new world order" and the spirit of reform that brought Mikhail Gorbachev a Nobel Peace Prize, people gathered in the streets to protect one another and their centers of communication as the tanks rolled. Monday morning's paper brought worse scenes -- people being crushed by tanks. One man's running shoes peeped out from under the treads.
Saturday's awful question -- are we sending young Americans to unnecessary deaths? -- had been replaced by other awful questions about Gorbachev. Did he order the tanks? If the answer is yes, he's a Stalinist. And if he didn't, the answer is equally harrowing, because it shows he has lost control and we are back to the Cold War.
It's just as depressing that George Bush doesn't seem to be asking any questions. He seems to be planning a repeat of his tepid reaction to Tiananmen Square. His single-minded pursuit of war in the gulf admits of no interference.