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Where have all the crises gone?

What ever happened to Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini? Or the communist push to take over the tiny Central American country of El Salvador? Or the West's outrage over the Soviet lunge into Afghanistan?

Not so long ago all these trouble spots were the center of attention in the world press. Day after day screaming headlines roused the public to a high pitch of emotion and concern while presidents and diplomats struggled with appropriate actions, reactions, counteractions.Today these "crises" have all but disappeared, relegated to the inside pages for mundane treatment. Instead we are off on another set of "critical problems" - Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Namibia. Whatever.

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Is there a lesson to be gleaned here? Perhaps it lies in having a more measured, balanced, dispassionate view of world events. It is true that isolated incidents -- the seizure of some American hostages in Tehran, a Soviet military invasion, a dramatic hunger strike in an Ulster prison -- generate excited spurts of interest and involvement in these faraway places. Yet, once the drama is over, press and public tend to forget that the underlying "crises" persist and the problems remain no more nor less urgent. Foreing policy, in fact, ought to be perceived less as an ad hoc exercise in damping down the fires of sudden flareups and more as a steady, unobtrusive, persistent effort to chip away at world tensions and conflicts and to build, brick by brick, the foundations of peace and progress.

These "trouble spots," for instance, are no less important for their absence on the front pages of world newspapers:

* Iran is still in the throes of that political power struggle that not so long ago sent reporters racing to the academic experts for analysis. Yes, the famous (or infamous) Ayatollah is still around and, still trying to balance the country's feuding Islamic factions, scolding President Bani-Sadr for supposedly violating the constitution. Is Bani- Sadr, a moderate, in danger of losing out altogether? The question draws a public yawn in America now, yet the outcome of the power struggle in Iran has immense relevance for Western strategic interests in the Gulf region. Is anyone noticing that the Soviet Union has tended to lean toward Iran in the Iran-Iraq war rather than toward its Iraqi client?

* Afghanistan seems almost to have become a forgotten land. The United States, after a brief period of indignation, has lifted the grain embargo on Moscow and even this week is discussing new grain deals with the Russians. Is the Soviet occupation of that hapless land now regarded as an unalterable "geopolitical fact"? Some 1.8 million Afghan refugees today languish in UN camps in Pakistan. Afghan "freedom fighters," for their part, continue to deny the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul control of anything more than the main town and roads. The Soviet Army is having to do most of the fighting against the resistance.

Today there seems to be less hysteria about a possible Soviet thrust into the Persian Gulf. Perspective and time have lent greater balance to Western interpretations. Yet if thought is being given in Washington and other capitals to how to reduce the Soviet presence in Afghanistan (assuming it cannot be eliminated altogether), this is not evident.

* El Salvador exploded into the news when the new US administration made it an early target of its get-tough-with-the-Russians policy. The whirlwind of public attention has receded. But the problem has not. By all accounts, the US money and military aid poured into the country has done little to defend the government from the leftist insurgency. The fighting and terrorism go on, with killings -- from both left and right -- averaging 35 a day. A military standoff of sorts exists, however, and the situation seems marginally better than it was three months ago. The US has drawn down its military advisers from 57 to 50, and now there are admissions by the State Department that its "white paper" which charged involvement in El Salvador contained "over-embellished" parts.

All of which is to say that the public, no less than diplomats, needs to face up to the world's disturbing pictures with fewer swings of euphoria or despair, to guard against either being lulled to sleep or getting overexcited. What is a flaming crisis today becomes just an ordinary, if no less importunate, problem tomorrow. The issues, it seems, are always complex and the solutions never facile; it takes time and patience to work through them. Knowing this should help bring a greater sense of perspective on and dominion ov er the human scene.

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