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EMPATHY IS COMMENDABLE TRAIT BUT NO REASON FOR U.S. TO JOIN WAR

Perhaps not since the Lincoln Brigade fought against Franco in Spain have so many believed it was America's moral duty to fight in another country's civil war.

Margaret Thatcher says that military involvement on behalf of the Muslims in Bosnia is a "moral imperative." Liberals for their part have seemed eager to prove that they too can be tough when a just cause - and not mere oil - is at stake. President Bush has now promised to "do whatever we have to do to stop the killing."Whatever the merits of particular strategies such as sending ground troops or strategic bombing, whatever the risk of becoming entangled in a deep and deadly quagmire we do not fully understand, and whatever the humanity of expanding the war by supplying arms to Muslim forces, no one seems to doubt the moral imperative of somehow fighting this good fight.

Since moral certainty has rarely been so high in matters of foreign affairs, we might wish to consider other candidates for a crusade:

- Sudan. Strengthened by arms shipments from Libya, Iran and China, the fundamentalist Islamic government has nearly wiped out the Christian and animist opposition forces in the south. Tens of thousands of others have starved as the government withholds food.

- Cambodia. After 12 years of nourishment by the United Nations and acquiescence of the United States, the Khmer Rouge remains the most potent fighting force in Cambodia. When they last ruled, more than a million people were executed, starved or worked to death.

- Burma. In addition to keeping 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the military has abolished the political opposition, jailed and tortured dissidents, persecuted Muslims and repressed Buddhist monks.

- Haiti. Hundreds keep trying to flee from Haiti each month. Not content to prevent them from arriving in the United States to apply for asylum, we now capture them on the open seas and return them to their persecutors.

This list is just a start. If the proposed 3,500 U.N. troops prove inadequate to protect food aid to Somalia, where hundreds now starve each day and 1.5 million are in jeopardy, should we not use force to end the clan fighting? What about Guatemala if the latest peace venture does not stop the military's oppression of the Indians? The savagery of the Shining Path in Peru? Afghanistan, where fighting still rages?

Famine, war, torture, even genocide: The killing and dying have persisted in these countries for years. If these horrors do not move us to intervene, why does Bosnia? These countries' remoteness and a lack of U.S. strategic interests there are surely not the reason, for these apply equally or more so to Bosnia.

A major reason we feel compelled to intervene is that most people in America - people who are white, who have power and influence - can see themselves when they look at Bosnia. Whatever the historical inaccuracies of equating the Serbian-run prison camps with Nazi con-cen-tra-tion camps, the emaciated bodies poised behind barbed wire remind us of the death camps, of our history and of ourselves. No matter how many die from starvation in Somalia this year, they will never remind us of ourselves.

Empathy is the basis of a decent, caring society. We should foster and cherish it. But empathy is not the same as moral principle. Nor by itself is it a reason to go to war. Considerations such as well-defined objectives, strategic interests, and tactical flexibility may not seem noble when deciding whether to go to war, but they are crucial for being able to end one. And starting a war without being able to finish it may be the greatest immorality of all.

(Peter C. Choharis writes on foreign affairs from New York.)