Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The World’s Policeman?

Last night President Obama gave his speech on the situation in Syria. We are greatly relieved that he is asking for a postponement of a vote on a military strike against that nation. Diplomacy now has a chance to work. Nevertheless some important questions remain.
    The president outlined his case for possible future military action. He presented the evidence that the Assad regime had used poison gas on its own citizens on August 21, and then proceeded to argue that this was a threat to U.S. security. How, one might ask, does a civil war in a country half way around the globe present a threat to our security? The president's argument is that if a tyrant can get away using with using weapons of mass destruction in one place others will be encouraged to do the same elsewhere. Eventually no country will be safe.
    For those of us of an older generation, the argument sounds eerily familiar. During the Vietnam war U.S. presidents used an argument for U.S. intervention based on the alleged "domino effect." The argument was that if the U.S. did not act to stop Communism in Southeast Asia it would eventually spread here.
    The result was a prolonged military campaign that ended in failure. There were vivid scenes of American personnel being evacuated by helicopter from Saigon as the country fell to the advancing North Vietnamese troops. But a strange thing happened along the way – Communism did not spread all over the world. The red flag does not fly over Canada. In fact Communism collapsed within the Soviet empire itself. What American policymakers had failed to recognize is that political turmoil is largely caused by local conditions. Revolution in one country does not necessarily mean revolution in every country. The policy of "containment" was largely unnecessary and futile.
    President Obama insisted that the U.S. is not the world's policeman. Yet the gist of his argument is that American military power is necessary to stabilize conditions around the world. It is hard to know what he means by "being the world's policeman" if he does not mean exactly that. (He also insists that he is not trying to start a war. But by nearly anyone else's reckoning a military strike against another country is exactly that – an act of war, and one does not fight a war by half measures. The first shot leads to another, until either one side is completely defeated or both sides are utterly exhausted.)
    The fact of the matter is that the U.S. has been trying to be the world's policeman for over a century now.
In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt sent the "Great White Fleet" around the world to project American power. Ever since then American presidents, both Republican and Democratic alike, have pursued a policy of internationalism. It was an American refinement of 19th Century European colonialism. As Rudyard Kipling famously put it,
        "Take up the White Man's burden,
         Send forth the best ye breed –
         Go, bind your sons to exile
         To serve your captives' need."
    The use of poison gas ought to be a matter of grave concern to the entire world. But a U.S. president must weigh carefully the consequences of our actions. Let us hope and pray that diplomacy has its sway. Launching cruise missiles into Syria is not likely to solve the problem.


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