Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Who Should We Be?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Who Should We Be?”
June 20, 2012

(The title of this piece is a bastardization of the late historian Samuel P. Huntington’s book “Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s Identity.”)

No one will argue that everything America has done has always been right, either for itself or the rest of the world. But, neither can anyone deny that any country, while at the height of its power, has fought more for principle and less for material gain, nor sacrificed so much for others. While self preservation was a consideration, American soldiers who died in the Argonne forest in 1918, in the Italian Apennines in 1944, in the Korean Peninsula in 1952, along the Ho Chi Ming Trail in Vietnam in 1967, or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan did not give their lives for material gain. They did so that others may enjoy the fruits of liberty, which is ours. In an imperfect world and despite our admitted periodic failings, America has generally been a force for good.

What is striking today is the contrast between the vision of America seen by President Obama and that of President George W. Bush. Following the attacks on 9/11, President Bush assumed a robust foreign policy described by John Lewis Gaddis, in Surprise, Security and the American Experience: “American leaders have evolved a strategy of forestalling future challenges by enlarging American interests.” The principal elements of that strategy were: preemption, unilateralism and hegemony. In his second inaugural speech, Mr. Bush said, “We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”

President Obama began his Administration by adopting a more nuanced and conciliatory tone in Cairo in June 2009, seeking in his words, “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” He spoke of Iraq, as being a “war of choice” and added, “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” The upshot was that America was not to be in the forefront of global policy decisions, but to be one among many. The pendulum swung quite quickly from an arc that embraced primacy and confidence to one that embraced diffidence and caused uncertainty.

Subsequently, the “Green” revolution in Iran went unanswered, and the “Arab Spring” has become a winter of discontent. The threat of nationalism rifts through a dissonant Europe. The Russia re-set button opened the wrong doors. At least the Guantanamo Bay prison remains open. While three captured terrorists underwent water boarding during the early Bush years, the Obama Administration has chosen to kill dozens of al Qaeda leaders (along with dozens more civilians) with the theoretically surgically precision of Drones. In doing so, they have avoided the complication of worrying what to do with prisoners, but also denying our security forces the ability to gain intelligence. But Obama’s hardening position on terrorism may reflect a realization that the world is more dangerous than he envisioned when he was only a candidate. (Terrorists actions are no longer referred to as “man-caused disasters.”

E.J. Dionne, Jr. recently wrote a piece for Democracy, A Journal of Ideas, entitled “Why History Matters to Liberalism.” He makes a point with which I agree, “From the beginning of our republic…Americans have been torn by a deep but productive tension between our love of individualism and our ongoing quest for community.” It is a beautiful metaphor that captures our philosophical, but not implacable, divide. His article deals with the search for equilibrium – a quest without end, in my opinion as it should be. He loses me later in the article, as he pushes his Leftist agenda and makes assumptions with which I disagree. He writes: “Conservatives are, by nature and conviction, more comfortable with the very idea of tradition.” While the statement is true as it applies to behavior and a moral sense, it totally ignores the thesis of creative destruction which drives capitalism, or that business people, of necessity, must focus on the future, not the past. He argues that the word “progressive” is the exclusive purview of the Left, despite the progressive nature of free markets. He ignores the fact that unions, which once fought for the future, now defend the present; in general, they have failed to adapt to the times. Left and Right are not so easily defined.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial, “A Leaderless World,” described what they see as “A world without U.S leadership…” The Bush Doctrine that presented America as a “hyperpower” has morphed into a rudderless ship now at risk of foundering on the shoals that are Syria, Iran, Russia, Egypt, Europe and South Asia. The editorial is correct, in my opinion, in that the consequences of a slow-growth entitlement society mean a nation with less economic growth and reduced global influence. Definitionally, an expansion of entitlements means an emphasis on consumption rather than investment, the driver of growth. The Journal’s editorial concludes on a sobering note worth pondering: “Without that American leadership, the increasing signs of world disorder will be portents of much worse to come.” However, any prediction should carry a warning label, as the view through the windshield is never as clear as the one in the rearview mirror.

Should the Journal’s views prove prescient and current trends are allowed to persist, the consequence must be reduced military spending. But can we afford that? Certainly, Europe is incapable of defending itself. Perhaps we can rely on the kindness of those who play by different rules – the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Syrians and North Koreans. But that seems a stretch? Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire where I grew up was home to a unit of the Strategic Air Command. Their motto was “Peace through Strength.” While the Command was disestablished in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its motto is as true today as it was years ago.

Both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, while differing in means, saw America as an empire, “an empire for liberty,” in Jefferson’s words. Two hundred years ago the word “empire” did not carry the negative connotation it does today. It referred more to a sphere of influence. America’s predominance remains as important to the world as ever. Who should we be? In my opinion, we who live here are extremely lucky, and we have an obligation to maintain the torch of liberty as a signal to the oppressed everywhere that our example can be emulated. That does not mean that we should enforce our form of government on others, but we cannot ignore struggles for freedom. The Cold War was a period of continuous brinkmanship, maintaining a standoff between two giant powers – the U.S. and the USSR – representing very different visions of the future. That time led to the school of “realism” in foreign relations, recognizing that the avoidance of Armageddon should be the number one priority. Today we live in a very different time. Wars are more likely to be local, but nuclear weapons remain in unstable hands. We must be wary and diligent, while maintaining our responsibilities and our moral sense.

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