As the Bombs Fell and Missiles Flew, Hopes for a New World Order Gave Way to Familiar Disorder

As the Bombs Fell and Missiles Flew, Hopes for a New World Order Gave Way to Familiar Disorder

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Force. Derived from the Latin fortis, meaning "strong," it was the watchword of an extraordinary week.

I am stronger than you; therefore you will do what I say. Obey, or I will use force. That was what George Bush said to Saddam Hussein. For more than five months he had been saying it with warnings, then an ultimatum. Wednesday evening he switched to the vocabulary of bombs.

$ But Saddam talked back. I am stronger than you, he said to the man he calls the Satan in the White House. You may have more means of killing, but I have many more soldiers willing to die. Therefore I will not do what you say. On the second day of the war, Saddam added, Not only do I refuse to do what you want, I will now do something you thought you could prevent me from doing.

With that, sirens sounded in Israel.

The interaction of Bush's adamancy and Saddam's defiance was, to an unprecedented degree and in unprecedented ways, seen and heard round the world. Even when deprived of video transmission, television newsmen in Baghdad could still hold microphones to their hotel windows. Audiences on every continent studied maps of the city while they listened to the boom, boom, boom of what Bush was saying to Saddam.

Everyone expected this war. It started on schedule. The reporters were as ready as the warriors. Partly for that reason, and partly because the coverage was so pervasive and transfixing, another spectacle in another corner of the global village caught the world by surprise and received far less attention than it deserved. The agents of Soviet power and the people of Lithuania engaged in a grim dialogue of their own.

I am stronger than you, said Mikhail Gorbachev. Therefore you will do what I say. You can, if you insist, pursue your secessionist ambitions, but only according to rules and a timetable that suit those of us who don't want to see you ever achieve your goal. Otherwise I will use force.

The Lithuanians' reply: We are stronger than you because we have historical justice on our side. We are also strengthened by your own promises to govern democratically and to forswear the principle that might makes right. Therefore you cannot crush us.

Gorbachev: Wrong.

With that, the tanks rolled in Vilnius.

Thus the world saw, in a few astonishing days, two examples of the resort to force that were, in many ways, at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. If there is such a thing as a just war, President Bush launched one against Saddam. The Iraqi dictator confirmed the worst that Bush had said of him by raining down ballistic missiles on the civilian population of Israel, a nation totally uninvolved in the dispute over Kuwait -- and one with which Saddam's Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, had said only a week earlier Iraq has "no bilateral dispute."

At the other end of the spectrum, Gorbachev was showing the world that however earnest he may be in wanting to reform the Soviet Union, the system over which he presides -- and for which he bears responsibility -- still relies heavily on the threat and use of force. The Soviet version of the social compact still boils down to the powers that be saying to the citizenry: We are stronger than you; therefore you will do what we say.

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