Richard Reeves

The Bitter Fruit of Kuwait and Kosovo

WASHINGTON -- Impressively thinner and nicely buffed, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson flew off to Kuwait last week and pleaded with the royal family to think a bit more about its position as the leader of the "price hawks" of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. With Iran and Algeria, the royals in Kuwait have been putting the squeeze on the folks buying fuel oil in New England and other places cooler than the desert. Good job, Bill, commemorated by this headline in The New York Times: "Kuwait, in a Switch, Agrees to Consider Increasing Output of Oil."

Say, isn't that the same royal family whose crowns we pulled out of the fire a few years ago at a cost high in the billions of dollars? I still remember Time magazine's rationale for launching Operation Desert Storm while the royals flew their children to resorts in Saudi Arabia and the south of France: "We can make a good little country into a great little country."

I, for one, had more modest ambitions for that expenditure of a big chunk of our national treasure and some of our own children: Maybe we could get that good little country out of the Middle Ages. And you see how much we've managed to change the aggressor in that part of the world, the bad little nation we wanted to turn into a plain old good one, Iraq.

It was only a coincidence, of course, that Kuwait tried to dipstick it to us -- and may still -- in the same week that the people we saved in Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians, went about the old business of trying to cleanse their land of the bad guys there, the Serbs. And if the new good guys there, we and our friends, get in the way, they're likely to get killed, too. For what? I'm not exactly sure I remember.

It's really tough being the only superpower, bringing truth, light and the American way to people in lousy places determined to exploit each other or kill each other, sometimes for reasons they themselves hardly remember. Look at the enlightenment we managed to bring to Somalia and Haiti.

It seems to me now, as it did then, that like the Romans, there is only so much we can accomplish at the far reaches of empire. All the power in the world is not going to save some royal families and some "liberation armies" from themselves and their history. The lesson of history, that you cannot drive out and defeat people on their own land unless you are willing to occupy it forever, seems lost to us -- and to most everyone else. Look at the Russians in Chechnya. It is just more brutally obvious in their case, but the result will be the same: Unless you are willing to kill every last one of them, they will be there forever. They have nowhere else to go.

We do. Our own "liberation" efforts, launched with righteous fanfare, aimed usually at one bad guy, a Saddam or a Milosevic, have not gone well and probably never will, because we have sold ourselves on the myths of superpower. We have been able to convince ourselves for a few weeks at a time that we have the power and the capability to perform the military equivalent of brain surgery, eliminating a power plant here, a chemical factory there, hit fireflies with Patriot missiles and change the minds, hearts and history of knaves and fools anywhere on the planet -- and then get home in time to watch people try to become millionaires on television.

Are the good people of Africa, of the Middle East, of the Balkans better off -- are the poor dead Kurds in Iraq we promised to protect better off -- than they were before our Disneyland war displays showed them the way and the light? The Kurds we betrayed by first helping them and then abandoning them. In Kosovo, we are seeing that to the Albanians there, liberation is ethnic cleansing -- as it was for the Serbs earlier.

More than 700,000 Serbs and Gypsies have been driven from the province since the end of the NATO bombing. When the last 100,000 Serbs are gone, there will be a momentary lull in the killing, so our soldiers can hurry home and we can tell our children of being the indispensable nation, the liberators of the Haitians, the Somalis, the Kuwaitis, the Kurds and the Kosovars.

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