Full engagement, the only viable, effective and moral stance for the U.S. to take toward the world

Posting that column last night — the one from 9/23/01 — I realized that I had forgotten to post something else a week earlier.

When I shared with you the hasty column I wrote for the “extra” we put out on 9/11, and the one I turned around immediately and wrote for the next day, I had fully intended also to share a more important piece from several days later — the editorial I wrote for that following Sunday. But the 16th of this month came and went, and I failed to do that.

So I share it now. Being an editorial (an institutional, rather than personal opinion) and being a Sunday piece (when newspapers take a step back from immediate events, and also when they tend to express the views they regard as being of greatest import), it’s different from the other pieces. Less of my voice and style, more formalized. But at the same time, for the purposes of this blog, it also has perhaps greater value as a clear expression of my own views of what the nation should do going forward.

In it, I expressed views I had long held, and still hold, but they were sharpened and set into relief by the events of that week.

Spoiler alert: Basically, this piece is about a couple of things. The first is the need for re-engagement in the world, after a growing isolationism that had worried me all through the 90s. With notable exceptions — our involvement in the Balkans, for instance — we had become more insular, more preoccupied with our own amusements as a fat, happy nation. Up to that point, I had objected on the basis that when you are the world’s richest and most powerful nation (indisputable after the fall of the USSR), it is morally wrong to turn your back on the world, like a rich man behind the walls of his gated community. What 9/11 did was add to that the fact that such disengagement was positively dangerous.

The other main point is something I later learned an interesting term for: DIME, for “Diplomatic,” “Information,” “Military” and “Economic.” Actually, that’s not quite it, either. The DIME term refers to ways of exerting power, and that it certainly part of it, but not all of it. Another piece of the concept I was talking about was what you often hear referred to as “soft power.” Unfortunately, that is often mistakenly expressed as an alternative to “hard power.” But they complement each other. A unipolar power trying to achieve all of its goals through either alone is doomed to fail, ultimately.

No, I have to go back to the earlier, vaguer term: Engagement. On every level you can think of — diplomatic, cultural, mercantile, humanitarian, and yes, military.

Much of this piece, given the moment in which it was written, is occupied with the military part. That’s natural. That’s the hardest to persuade people of in our peaceful times (if you doubt we live in peaceful times, I plan a post after this one to address that). The rest, people just nod about and say, yes, of course we should do those things. (OK, perhaps I’m being a bit sanguine about that. I’ll just say that the people who need convincing on the military part are likely to say that — others are likely to say ‘Hell, no — let them fend for themselves.” And thus we have the two sides of isolationism.) They take more convincing on the tough stuff. (Some of you will object, “Not after 9/11! People’s blood was boiling!” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about passions of the moment. I was talking about long-term policy. I’m talking about what happens after people calm down and say, Never mind; let’s just withdraw.)

Reading it now, I wish the piece had been longer, with far more explication of the other elements, and how they were integrated. The following years, we saw constant argument between two views, neither of which saw the value of the whole concept. On the one hand, you had the Bushian — really, more the Rumsfeldian — notion that all you had to do was topple a tyrant and things would be fine. On the other, there was the myopic view that soft power was the only kind that was moral and effective.

These ideas are as relevant now as ever. Now that we have employed hard power to topple a tyrant in Libya, will we engage fully on other fronts to help Libya have a better future, one in which it has a chance of being a long-term friend, ally and trading partner? Or will we turn our attention away now that the loud noises have stopped going off?

Anyway, I’ve explained it enough. Here it is:


State, The (Columbia, SC) – Sunday, September 16, 2001

IF YOU HAD MENTIONED the words “missile defense shield” to the terrorists who took over those planes last Tuesday, they would have laughed so hard they might have missed their targets.

That’s about the only way it might have helped.

Obviously, America is going to have to rethink the way it relates to the rest of the world in the 21st century. Pulling a high-tech defensive blanket over our heads while wishing the rest of the world would go away and leave us alone simply isn’t going to work.

We are going to have to drop our recent tendencies toward isolationism and fully engage the rest of the world on every possible term – military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.

Essentially, we have wasted a decade.

After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, there was a vacuum in our increasingly interconnected world, a vacuum only the United States could fill. But we weren’t interested. After half a century of intense engagement in world affairs, we turned inward. Oh, we assembled and led an extraordinary coalition in the Gulf War – then let it fall apart. We tried to help in Somalia, but backed out when we saw the cost. After much shameful procrastination, we did what we should have done in the Balkans, and continue to do so. We tried to promote peace in the Mideast, then sort of gave up. But by and large, we tended our own little garden, and let the rest of the world drift.

We twice elected a man whose reading of the national mood was “It’s the economy, stupid.” Republicans took over Congress and started insisting that America would not be the world’s “policeman.”

Beyond overtures to Mexico and establishing a close, personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, President Bush initially showed little interest in foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, Russia and China worked to expand their own spheres of influence, Europe started looking to its own defenses, and much of the rest of the world seethed over our wealth, power and complacency.

Well, the rest of the world isn’t going to simply leave us alone. We know that now. On Tuesday, we woke up.

In the short term, our new engagement will be dominated by military action, and diplomacy that is closely related to military aims. It won’t just end with the death or apprehension of Osama bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell served notice of what will be required when he said, “When we’re through with that network, we will continue with a global assault against terrorism in general.” That will likely mean a sustained, broad- front military effort unlike anything this nation has seen since 1945. Congress should get behind that.

At the moment, much of the world is with us in this effort. Our diplomacy must be aimed at maintaining that support, which will not be easy in many cases.

Beyond this war, we must continue to maintain the world’s most powerful military, and keep it deployed in forward areas. Our borders will be secure only to the extent that the world is secure. We must engage the help of other advanced nations in this effort. We must invest our defense dollars first and foremost in the basics – in keeping our planes in the air, our ships at sea and our soldiers deployed and well supported.

We must always be prepared to face an advanced foe. Satellite intelligence and, yes, theater missile defenses will play roles. But the greatest threat we currently face is not from advanced nations, but from the kinds of enemies who are so primitive that they don’t even have airplanes; they have to steal ours in order to attack us. For that reason, we must beef up our intelligence capabilities. We need spies in every corner of the world, collecting the kind of low-tech information that espiocrats call “humint” – human intelligence. More of that might have prevented what happened last week, in ways that a missile shield never could.

But we are going to have to do far more than simply project military power. We must help the rest of the world be more free, more affluent and more democratic. Advancing global trade is only the start.

We must cease to regard “nation-building” as a dirty word. If the people of the Mideast didn’t live under oligarchs and brutal tyrants, if they enjoyed the same freedoms and rights and broad prosperity that we do – if, in other words, they had all of those things the sponsors of terror hate and fear most about us – they would understand us more and resent us less. And they would, by and large, cease to be such a threat to us, to Israel and to themselves.

This may sound like an awful lot to contemplate for a nation digging its dead out of the rubble. But it’s the kind of challenge that this nation took on once before, after we had defeated other enemies that had struck us without warning or mercy. Look at Germany and Japan today, and you will see what America can do.

We must have a vision beyond vengeance, beyond the immediate guilty parties. And we must embrace and fulfill that vision, if we are ever again to enjoy the collective peace of mind that was so completely shattered on Sept. 11, 2001.

47 thoughts on “Full engagement, the only viable, effective and moral stance for the U.S. to take toward the world

  1. Phillip

    You can’t just lump in the phrase “hard power to topple a tyrant” in the case of Libya as if it were the equivalent of what happened in Iraq. The differences are so numerous they would take pages to describe here. (For one, those were Libyans marching into Tripoli, not American soldiers.) I agree that we should do what we can (financial, diplomatic) to help foster a democratic state there, but you minimize the extent to which the way the action was conducted influences the future course of events. In any case, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt…none of it matters if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved peacefully and satisfactorily.

  2. Brad

    It’s like Rashomon — we both witness the same thing, and describe it very differently. I greatly appreciate, as always, the thoughtfulness of your response, and yet disagree with almost every other sentence.

    I actually acted in a production of Rashomon once. I was the peaceful, disillusioned Buddhist monk.

    Type casting.

  3. Phillip

    Well, never mind my overall view about the insupportability and instability of a unilateralist world, I know we’re not going to agree on that. I’m asking you, sincerely, and on the level, A) do you really think 1989-2001 was as isolationist a period as you seem to claim, and B) if that’s the case, what few things specifically do you think we should we have done differently in that time period (imagining for the moment that domestic political concerns would have been no impediment) that you think might have changed history?

  4. Herb Brasher

    There is so much more that needs to be done that does not necessarily involve military intervention.

    I’m just underlining the ‘i’ and the ‘E’ in DIME, but it needs a ‘PC’ for personal commitment, as in PeaceCorps. See, for example Kristof’s excellent article on starvation in Somalia

  5. Phillip

    You were (understandably) still in the emotional grip of the 9/11 attacks when you wrote this; it’s the only way to explain the illogical, historically-misinformed tone of the piece. The “half-century of intense engagement in world affairs” whose end you bemoaned was 50 years of policies warped by our Cold War obsessions (with a few hundred thousand dead innocent Vietnamese civilians, some Central Americans, etc. tossed in there…) This mythical period of so-called isolationism between 1989 and 2001? Let’s see…it included Persian Gulf War, the Oslo Accords and Wye River Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians (which sank in large part due to Arafat, somewhat less so Israel, but not really US fault), eventual (if late) action in the Balkans, the George Mitchell-negotiated Northern Ireland Agreement, trade agreements with China, normalization of relations with Vietnam, continued military presence throughout the world (your favorite), continued foreign aid that was concentrated even more in economic aid to the former Soviet states, and yes, pursuit of intelligence and action against Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Yes, failure to act in Rwanda was a disgrace, as Bill Clinton has acknowledged.

    The fact that these 19 men could strike at our heart in this way would naturally lead one to look for fault, to vow that “things must change,” etc. But was the period 1989-2001 really such an isolationist period as you make it sound? Of course foreign policy did not dominate the campaign of 2000 as it had in past years; of course people may have had a false sense of security with the removal of the Cold War spectre hanging over us. But what really bothered you about that period? Was it that we did not move more aggressively to turn the world into an American protectorate, once the Soviet threat was gone? Are you still not aware of the irony of your complaining that the world would no longer “leave us alone” while continuing to insist “we must continue to maintain the world’s most powerful military, and keep it deployed in forward areas. Our borders will be secure only to the extent that the world is secure.”? Note that at the time of 9/11 that state of military strength and projection existed, and it did not stop those attacks. But the the misappropriation of 9/11 for long-standing geopolitical desires, the fervent desire to shoehorn the 9/11 experience into an inappropriate context (Pearl Harbor redux) contributed towards squandered the world’s goodwill towards us, fractured the brief unity of the country, exposed the spiritual fragility of the country, and may have marked the beginning of the end of the American century.

  6. bud

    Phillip, that was well researched, beautifully written and absolutely persuasive. A complete refudiation of the idea that the U.S. is somehow a victim in world affairs.

  7. Doug Ross

    “It’s like Rashomon — we both witness the same thing, and describe it very differently.”

    Bad analogy. Phillip refuted your premise about America being in an isolationist period with cold, hard facts. You’re trying to rewrite history to match your belief that the U.S. must be the policeman to the world by ignoring every piece of evidence that damages that narrative. It’s an impossible goal that hurts us even more as a nation to pursue.

    There has been no isolationism. There has been no diminishing of the United States’ attempts to influence the world.

  8. martin

    The Phillip/Brad dialogue was fascinating. Brad sees a period of isolationism. Phillip actually lists some of the things the US was involved in overseas during that period and Brad diagrees.

    Does that mean those things didn’t actually happen or that they just were not issues of interest to Brad or met his criteria as important events?

  9. Brad

    It means those example don’t negate the fact that Americans were unusually inward-looking in that decade, the decade of “it’s the economy, stupid,” and other forms of political self-absorption. (Being concerned about the economy today is less indicative of narcissism than it was then. Today, we face a global economic crisis. Today, worrying about the economy IS worrying about the world. That was far less the case in 1992, as domestic affairs came to dominate presidential politics. No more arguing about Quemoy and Matsu like in the old days.)

    If you listened to American politicians at the time — who are very attuned to what the nation is thinking about, and speak accordingly — you heard it everywhere. The federal government exists primarily as a means for these united states to interact with the rest of the world, but you wouldn’t hear much about that.

    It looked at first as though it wasn’t going to be like that with he fall of the Soviet Union. The Gulf War was something unimaginable during the Cold War — the U.S. and the West taking the lead, forming a remarkable coalition with regional forces to stop an act of aggression. But then… we pulled back. We pulled back, and encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam. They did, and he massacred those who did, and we stood by, with a force at hand larger than anything we could muster today, and did nothing.

    None of our business, you see.

    That’s because G. H. W. Bush was a true conservative. The old oilman didn’t want to disturb the equilibrium, the status quo. He seems to have seen the Gulf War as purely about that — the status quo was disturbed, so let’s restore it.

    And everybody — Saddam, the House of Saud, the Kuwaitis — all went back to their palaces and things went on as before.

    Our truncated intervention in Somalia was a good example of how our own national focus, or lack thereof, interfered with effective engagement in the world. People were starving there, so we tried to feed them. We saw that we had to push past warlords to get to the people, so we sent in troops. Then we all ignored the situation — not the president, not the Pentagon, not the aid groups, but the overwhelming majority of the American people forgot about Somalia. Then one day — my 40th birthday as it happened — several of our soldiers were killed. We disengaged, with the mission incomplete. (Ask the soldiers who were they that day — they’ll tell you their mission was successful that day, and that they were making progress. But the American people didn’t see any of that; they saw a disaster and a mistake — better not to get involved any more in such.)

    As you say, Rwanda was a shameful failure. We DID take much too long to help Europe sort out its mess in the Balkans, although what we accomplished there was an example of what we COULD do when we overcame our reluctance.

    Oslo, as it turned out, was a bust. And by the end of the decade, Clinton was being criticized for having disengaged there. He tried to amend that near the end with a flurry of re-engagement, but that was not the story of the decade, and the next thing that happened was the second Intifada.

    Anyway, you see the pattern. As I said, Rashomon. We’re looking at the same events, but Phillip sees them as irrefutable evidence of his premise, and I see them as at best exceptions to the rule, and at worst as confirmations to the rule, in terms of the manner in which they unfolded.

    The United States will always be intimately tied up in world affairs. It’s inevitable, given our size and the complexity of our interactions, through all the aspects of DIME and beyond. It would simply be impossible today for us to be as obviously isolationist as we were in the 1930s, or before the First World War.

    But there are times when the American people, those of us who form the Zeitgeist (as opposed to diplomats, aid workers, international businesspeople and other professionals), are interested in those connections and care deeply about them, and times when we are less interested and care less.

    The 90s was one of the latter sorts of periods.

  10. Brad

    Oh, as for the bipolar-vs.-unipolar thing — I’ve been known to say that I miss the Cold War. I’m mostly being facetious, but not entirely.

    One thing about the kind of stasis that superpower competition creates in a nuclear age — the superpowers are paralyzed militarily. Neither can do much overtly, although there are lots of proxy wars. We tried to get involved directly in one of those, and then spent the rest of the Cold War kicking ourselves for having done so, and saying “Never again.”

    That sort of stasis absolves the superpowers from acting. They stand back and let local powers kill each other, but don’t intervene for fear of setting off Armageddon.

    Such absolution from responsibility is a good thing if you don’t want the superpowers using their power. It’s a bad thing if, every once in awhile, you do.

  11. Brad

    Not that we need be nostalgic for the Cold War. We never actually had to fight the Russians. But now that they have retired from the world’s trouble spots, every time our troops go to those places, they run into AK-47s…

  12. bud

    This debate could be resolved by doing a bit of arithmetic. How many people died as a result of wars/war related famines during the 90s vs. the 2000s? I don’t have a definitive answer but it seems like the world was far safer by that metric during the 90s. If that is the case then one of two conclusions must be true:

    1. The U.S. did intervene effectively even if it did so a bit less stridently than either the 80s or 2000s or …
    2. The U.S. was more introspective during the 90s. In which case that “hands off” approach is more effective and hence a world strategy that should be emulated.

  13. Brad

    Yes, there are — now. But the Kalashnikov is probably the most identifiable product ever to come out of the Soviet Union. It’s an amazing weapon — cheap, durable, and easy to care for. Which is why you see it all over the Third World. It’s the great leveler. Literally, a child can handle it (hence the tragedy of child soldiers of Africa). Tremendously marketable. In fact, it’s the only thing ever to come out of the USSR you can say that about, with the possible exception of their RPG-7. In its way, the T-34 tank was a popular and effective design as well, but not quite the “consumer” product the AK was and is.

    We had Coca-Cola and Levis. The Soviets had the AK-47. And look who won the Cold War.

  14. Doug Ross

    “Tremendously marketable. In fact, it’s the only thing ever to come out of the USSR you can say that about,”

    I’d put Anna Kournikova on that list.

  15. Brad

    I had to Google Kournikova, not being a sports fan. It led me to some interesting websites. They were not about sports.

    Actually, in some of her most appealing photos — that is, some of the most appealing photos that are about her face rather than the rest of her — she looks like a quintessential California girl, rather than a Russian. And we hold the patent on that, right?

  16. Herb Brasher

    I wonder sometimes if Brad’s desire to extend and preserve the pax Americana isn’t sort of parallel to dream that Winston Churchill had of preserving the British Empire. Only thing is, at the end of WWII, as one biographer puts it, the old Prime Minister was hopelessly out of touch with the times.

    But I’d better quit. To paraphrase Brad, a bit of history in the wrong person’s hands can do a lot of damage.

  17. Herb Brasher

    Oops, that didn’t sound too complimentary of Brad. I’m not calling Brad old, nor obstinate. But he does have some of the tenacity of Churchill, I will admit.

  18. Brad

    Well, I’ve certainly always appreciated this speech of his:

    “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

  19. Brad

    He expressed the same idea, of course, in the speech that for me would have to be on the Top Five Speeches of All Time list, the one delivered in 1940 with the seemingly irresistible might of Nazi Germany looming over Britain:

    “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

    Which of course we did. That last part, I mean. Even though we weren’t in the Empire any more, having opted out some time earlier. Good on us, say I.

    When I hear that speech, it almost makes me wonder why Hitler didn’t just give up right then and there.

  20. Phillip

    Indeed, Brad, Hitler should not have underestimated the determination of people fighting for their native soil. Another such example of determination underestimated by an opponent: “We have been fighting for our independence for more than 25 years, and of course we cherish peace, but we will never surrender our independence to purchase a peace with the ——— or any party…You must know of our resolution. Not even your nuclear weapons would force us to surrender after so long and violent a struggle for the independence of our country.”

    Not quite as eloquent as Churchill but spoken on behalf of a people that loved their country as much as the British loved theirs.

  21. Herb Brasher

    Motivating and impressive. But we must not forget that it was Churchill’s own faults, to a great extent, that turned his own party against him.

    When former PM MacDonald was asked, after the war, why Churchill’s own party members had not listened to Churchill during the time of appeasement, he answered with one word, ‘India.’ Churchill’s obstinacy on India; his prejudice that the Asian was not able to rule himself, and his insistence that the British empire must endure at all costs–because only Britain could take care of the world, cost him credbility, and the nation a crucial voice when it needed it most

  22. Doug Ross

    ““Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

    Would it be difficult to imagine those same words coming out of the mouth of bin Laden a year ago?

  23. bud

    Seems like the Palestinian people could use a Churchill. They have a legitimate right to their own state just as much as the Jewish people. Not sure I really get all this religious based nationhood. We allow all religions to thrive in this country yet when it comes to a foreign nation, Isreal, we support religious intollerance. Not sure I get that but it seems to be pretty bipartisan.

  24. Brad

    It doesn’t matter, Kathryn. I’m imagining it’s somebody like Ho Chi Minh.

    Or maybe it’s a surprise. Maybe it’s one of the Mujahedeen speaking to the Soviets. Whatever.

    Whoever it is, Phillip’s point seems to be that it is EXACTLY the same as Churchill leading the British people in standing alone, at that moment, among liberal societies in the developed world, against a totalitarianism that had already swept over Europe, had every intention of swallowing Britain, and dominating the world. Because, you know, all regimes are of equal value; every definition of “nation” the same. Everyone who says he’s fighting for home and hearth is on an equal footing with the Brits standing alone in the West against Nazism.

    I get that (or at least, I think I do; I would be very relieved to learn that I’m misunderstanding you). And I could not possibly disagree more strongly.

    Look, y’all are my friends. But statements such as Doug’s equating Churchill with bin Laden — comparing a man rallying the last free major nation in the Old World in resisting the most lurid evil of the past century (oh, and to someone who wants to get pedantic and say Stalin’s USSR was more evil, or nominate the Khmer Rouge, or whatever — give it a rest; you get my point) to a deluded terrorist who wants to return the world to a medieval state — are just appalling.

    Have a sense of perspective, guys — really.

  25. Brad

    Where’s Mike Cakora when you need him to stick up for his Anglosphere?

    Actually, seriously — anybody see Mike? He used to be such a regular. I guess we ran him off…

  26. Doug Ross


    How many innocent people’s deaths were a results of Churchill’s leadership? Here’s his own words from a secret telegram prior to the Dresden bombings:

    “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… ”

    25,000 civilians were killed… women and children.

    Yeah, I know… “just war”, “they were the bad guys”, blah blah blah.

  27. Herb Brasher

    I’ve wondered where Mike was, he probably did get frustrated.

    Churchill compared to bin Laden? No, a thousand times, no. But can we not see the chinks in the armor of these historic personalities? Why is everything black and white? Why is Churchill only the wonderful motivator in war time? His obstinancy motivated a people, yes. It also cost them dearly, because he would not and could not deal with the fact that the British empire could not continue to dominate the world.

    Can we not learn from history? I mean all of its lessons, not just about Neville Chamberlain and appeasement.


  28. Brad

    Herb, nothing is black and white. Nothing, period. Probably no one you know argues against absolutism more than I do (see UnParty).

    I have no patience with black-or-whiters. The problem I have here is with people who insist that every thing is exactly the same shade.

    Oh, and no one said Churchill was the only inspirational leader, or anything like that.

    Why don’t people react to what I say, instead of arguing with things I neither say nor believe?

    Arrgghhh, indeed.

  29. Herb Brasher

    That’s the point. I am reacting to what I perceive as an over-confidence and reliance upon military means. I get the DIME, yes. Many situations, however, do not need the ‘M’ component at all. It has often caused more problems than it solved. Indeed; sometimes it even created the problem in the first place.

  30. Phillip

    I would never claim that the enemy Ho Chi Minh (yes, that was the quote) faced, whether France or later the US, was anything like Nazi Germany. But not all of the tragedy in the history of the world, the suffering, war, death, catastrophe, etc., has come about through the actions of unmitigated evil regimes like Hitler, etc. Much has come about through the stupidity or arrogance of nation-states, or even just plain misunderstanding.

    My point about Ho Chi Minh was really just a response to your question, “why didn’t Hitler just give up when he heard that speech?” Well, we didn’t give up in Vietnam for quite some time even after knowing how determined most Vietnamese were to have us (or any foreign troops) out of their country. Hitler misjudged his enemy to some degree, and so did we.

    No, not all regimes are equal. But it was not Churchill’s defiant words that distinguished the Allies in history; after all, if we’re going to talk about “never giving up” vis-a-vis WWII, the country that had us all beat was Japan, which seemed like it might fight literally to the last person—hence Truman’s reasoning for dropping the A-bomb.

    And no, I don’t think that all regimes are equal. But too many well-meaning intelligent Americans fail to grasp that qualities like love of country, determination to live independently and free from foreign interference, loving one’s children and grandchildren, and yes determination to defend all that—are somehow qualities that are unique to America…that we are not always willing to grant that right to others in the world.

    The enemy that HCM faced was most assuredly not Nazi Germany…but if was your family that got napalmed because they got caught in the middle of what you recently termed a “proxy war,” you would be less inclined to parse out the fine distinction. More to the point, though; while HCM’s enemy and Churchill’s enemy were not of the same order in terms of nefarious global ambition, the basic human aspirations of each of their peoples WERE of equal legitimacy.

  31. Brad

    If it were my family that got napalmed, I hope you’d turn to someone a little more disinterested to make policy decisions going forward. You might not get the most nuanced, thoughtful sort of response from me.

    Excuse me for trying to be creative in saying “why didn’t Hitler just give up when he heard that speech?” instead of something more prosaic such as “heckuva speech, huh?” For the record, I did not, nor would I ever, literally wonder why the hyperagressive (actually, on that scale, I should be able to come up with something a bit stronger than “hyperagressive,” but it’s been a long day) madman with one of the mightiest forces ever assembled in Europe didn’t surrender at some brave words from Churchill. I was being figurative.

    I should stop being ironic. It often gets me in trouble.

    With no irony at all, let me say two quick things: I do not believe for a moment, nor have I ever asserted, that “all of the tragedy in the history of the world, the suffering, war, death, catastrophe, etc., has come about through the actions of unmitigated evil regimes like Hitler, etc.”

    As I say, the world is a lot grayer than that. Especially once you’re in a war — any war, not matter how just — at which point the moral ambivalence gets really deep and complex.

    Second, as to your last sentence — I don’t know anything about peoples. I don’t really believe in “peoples.” Americans don’t, or shouldn’t, believe in “peoples.” I wish I could find a wonderful passage in a leader in The Economist years ago, which said something like this in comparing this country to Japan: The difference is that to be considered Japanese, you have to be ethnically Japanese. But as long as you believe in some principles set out by some dead white guys of English descent in the 18th century, you are an American.

    We don’t, or shouldn’t, do “peoples.” In fact, a lot of our narrative has been about trying to overcome the natural human tendency to do so, to think it terms of tribes or races. To the extent that we succeed at that — to the extent that we build upon and go beyond what those old white guys did in the 1700s, taking it to levels they hardly dreamed of — we are succeeding at being Americans.

    OK, sorry. I went off on one word. But it’s an important distinction.

    But if you want to talk about people, without the S, I think each human being has aspirations that are equally legitimate, regardless of his or her race or nation.

    However, if you were talking national aspirations — which I think was what you meant by “peoples” — no, I cannot accept for a moment that the aims of Ho’s movement were the same, were just as worthy and legitimate, as that of the last large liberal nation standing (other than the United States) standing against tyranny on that date in 1940.

    That was a pivot point in world history. The world’s stake in the survival of a free Britain was far greater, and of greater (while not perfect, because NOTHING in human affairs is black and white, let me hasten to add before I’m misunderstood again) clarity than that of Ho and his adherents.

  32. Brad

    You know, as frustrated as it has made me at times, this has been a valuable discussion.

    It clarifies something, at least to me.

    I often position myself, and define a central mission of this blog, as being one of standing against the excesses of extremes, particularly of left and right.

    But you have helped me define a more meaningful dichotomy, one which I also stand against.

    I am deeply opposed to those who believe that things are black and white, that they are one way or the other. I rail against it in writing about domestic politics especially because the contest between left and right, Democrats and Republicans is so obviously, almost comically (if it weren’t beyond being funny) wrongheaded. It is so obvious that neither side is right or wrong all of the time, and neither side realizes that.

    But… I stand equally against those who say that since there is no black and white, everything is equal. That there is no such thing as one thing being clearly a better idea than another. That it’s all relative. A matter of taste, or preference, or whatever.

    You can’t rate rightness and wrongness according to a scale from 1 to 10. If we could, and could do it empirically and reliably, we could dispense with all political arguments.

    But just suppose for a moment that you could, in order for me to make a point. What I’m saying is that I reject that any one side, or party, or point of view, or nation, or race, or gender, or what have you is always a 10 or always a 1.

    But I also reject the idea that because neither is a 1 or a 10, then everything is a 5.

    Does this make sense? I suppose it’s stupid to express it this way, because you CANNOT numerically express such things. But I’m just trying to come up with another way of saying that just because things are neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad does NOT mean that everything is just the same, of dead even value.

    I need to find a shorter way to say this, and turn it into some sort of slogan for the blog…

  33. Herb Brasher

    Maybe Yogi Berra could help:

    “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

    or, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

    But for so solemn a thought, we should turn to Honest Abe:

    “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”

  34. Phillip

    I couldn’t agree with you more about “people” vs. “peoples” and I should have left out the “s.” Yes, Vietnam was not exactly as pivotal in world history as “the last large liberal nation standing against tyranny” in 1940, also agreed.

    Also am glad to find the clarification that “unparty”-ism need not equal an ideological middle ground in all cases. Hope you can grant that many of us who tend to agree more often than not with one party than other (and I include Republicans of good conscience in this) do so not out of any kind of “yay team” loyalty but simply out of conviction in a set of beliefs.

    On this topic of the limits of bipartisanship, e.g., the fraudulence of trying to find the “5” on a scale of 1 to 10, you might find this Hendrik Hertzberg takedown of Thomas Friedman’s latest kind of interesting.

  35. bud

    I suppose it’s stupid to express it this way, because you CANNOT numerically express such things.

    On a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 10 (strongly agree), I’d rate that statement a 2.

  36. bud

    While we’re still on the subject of black and white along with Churchill here’s an interesting excerpt from an article about Winston Churchill’s decision to bomb Iraqi civilians in 1920:

    Imperialism “on the cheap”: The Mass Murder of Civilians by Air Power in Iraq

    Events in British Mesopotamia (current day Iraq) in 1920 provided an even greater opportunity for Trenchard to prove the worth of his air control bombing doctrine. Many people in Iraq resented the British conquest of their land and rose up in a major revolt against British occupying troops.

    At the time Winston Churchill was Secretary for Air and War in the Lloyd George government. Churchill sought ways to police the empire “on the cheap” by using air power to fight insurgents in place of sufficient ground troops (a fateful decision strikingly reminiscent of the strategy employed by American planners in Iraq eighty years later). Iraq, Churchill stated, provided the opportunity to “carry out a far-sighted policy of Imperial aerial development in the future.”[3] He therefore asked Trenchard if he thought the RAF could help matters in Mesopotamia. The British had 14,000 regular army troops and upwards of 80,000 Indian soldiers stationed in Iraq at a cost of between £14 million and £18 million per year. This cost had to be cut and Churchill wanted to use air power for financial savings, particularly after the defeat of Ibn Hassan in Somalia. Trenchard said he was confident his planes could help police the territory and suppress the rebellious tribesmen, although it would take some time to get his squadrons up and running in distant Mesopotamia.

  37. Herb Brasher

    Thanks for the link, Phillip, excellent. [Like]

    Can’t believe what I wrote last night. Forget the Yogi quotes. Must have been asleep at the keyboard. I wasn’t drinking anything but water, either.

  38. Herb Brasher

    Thanks, Bud. I just thought afterwards that these quotes don’t quite do what Brad needs for this.

    But I’m probably not the best person to help. As Yogi says, ‘our similarities are different.’

  39. Herb Brasher

    I’m still reflecting on this people vs. peoples thing. Brad’s comments seem to be putting to much emphasis upon the nation-state, which was really developed by colonialism.

    Obviously there are advantages to the nation-state development, but I’m wondering if imposing it on all the people groups of the world is really desirable?

    And ultimately, I wonder if Brad’s DIME policy for the Unparty isn’t really an extension of colonialism. I read an interesting book some time ago, entitled Beyond Colonialism, by Jonathan Ingleby, a British evangelical Christian. Here’s a couple of quotes, comparing current US foreign policy with imperial Britain:

    US economic imperialism, through its control of the IMF and the World Bank and its influence on the WTO, is much more pervasive and destructive. Britain tended to exploit its own colonies (India, in particular) but for the US the whole world is its economic playground.

    The US is more culturally insensitive. It has always had an isolationist streak (unlike the British who have not been able to afford that luxury) and its ignorance of other parts of the world is often profound. The British set to work to study their Empire; the US is not that bothered.

    The US government tends to be controlled by special interests e.g. the oil and coal lobby which trashed the Kyoto agreements. This means that the strong tendency to econmomic imperialism associated with economic globalisation and ‘big business’ has no sufficiently powerful countervailing criticism. . . . By contrast the British government, even when imperialism was at its height, had to endure a constant barrage of criticism. (Consider, for example, the furious opposition to the Second Boer War mounted by the Liberal Party.)

    Given the example I heard not too long ago of how an American corporation is squeezing the life and job opportuntiies out of a particular North African country, because it works only to better US economic (business class) interests in that place, I find such remarks intriguing.

    Interesting though that Brad does want a more British version of US foreign policy, as Ingleby illuminates:

    The British were more responsible. They felt that they were in ‘for the long haul’ and that they were called to make significant sacrifices. The US enters a country like Iraq, overthrows the government and destroys its infrastructure, but will finally leave it to its own devices. . . .

    So I guess we should be thankful that Brad’s vision for Unparty foreign policy is responsible imperialism.

    Oh boy, I think I’m really in trouble now . . .

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