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Iraq Crisis and US Resolve

Despite interventions in Panama and Gulf, US shows little desire to completely shed Vietnam syndrome and become world's policeman

THE Iraq crisis is commonly billed as the first of the post-cold war era. It also marks a growing distance from the post-Vietnam era - the aftermath of America's bruising encounter with the limits of intervention abroad. Within a year, the United States has mustered strong military responses to two different countries - Panama and Iraq.

Concerns about getting swamped in a long regional conflict persists in the military bureaucracy and among policymakers, according to outside consultants who work with them at various levels.

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But through the 1980s, American confidence has apparently grown in its ability to send troops, or at least jets, when conditions are right.

In moving from the invasion of tiny Grenada, to Panama, to the deployment of troops and firepower to the Persian Gulf, ``we've grown beyond the Vietnam syndrome,'' says diplomatic historian John Gaddis of Ohio University.

Yet, says one consultant to the military on strategic issues, ``I don't detect any enthusiasm for becoming the world's policeman.''

In recent weeks, the US sent in several hundred Marines to airlift Americans out of Monrovia, Liberia, after a rebel leader there threatened them.

The US has resisted calls by the Liberian president, however, to intervene in his country's civil war.

Last December, Philippine President Corazon Aquino asked for American air cover to help suppress a military coup attempt. She got it, but it was a brief operation.

The American jets never traded fire with the insurgents.

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The military deployment against Iraq, which soon may involve more than 200,000 US troops, is the largest since the Vietnam War.

Analysts do not necessarily read into the move, however, a greater US willingness to commit troops to foreign shores.

Iraq has provided such a blatant provocation that this crisis provides a poor test of any general US willingness to intervene, they say.

Yet after the frustrations of Vietnam and the hostage episode that followed the Iranian takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, the Reagan years seemed to bring greater confidence in the the country's ability to act in world affairs, says Jeff Simon, who teaches strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.

Even Jesse Jackson, who emerged in the 1988 presidential election campaign as the leading voice of the left wing of the Democratic Party, speaks forcefully in defense of the US response to Iraqi aggression.

He adds, however: ``Our record in Grenada and Panama weakens our moral authority.'' The American invasions in those countries drew much more criticism, especially from the political left, than has sending troops to Saudi Arabia.

The reasons for US military deployment in the Gulf include protecting the lives of Americans, invitations from allies in trouble, protecting oil supplies from seizure, and promoting stability in the region against military aggression.

``People who try to reduce this just to the question of oil are missing a point,'' Dr. Gaddis says. ``It's also about making sure that aggression doesn't pay.''

Modern history shows a general trend away from naked military aggression by great powers, Gaddis says, adding that forcing Iraq back within its borders could help carry that trend to medium powers as well.

``War doesn't seem to be a thing of these times,'' says the strategy consultant, who asked to withhold his name and company. The outcome of the current confrontation in the Gulf, he says, will either show that aggression can still succeed in regional disputes, or carry the trend further, showing ``that the world will not tolerate war anymore.''

Most US interventions during the Cold War were aimed at containing the spread of communism.

As the Soviet Union has withdrawn from promoting communism abroad, however, the receding cold war appears to be allowing other kinds of instability to spring forth.

``The superpowers' ability to manage regional conflicts is declining,'' Gaddis says.

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