Along the Tracks

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Epiphany Alert! Shade your eyes, liberals!

Mickey Kaus’s centrist smarminess is a pleasure to read - even when he’s dead wrong. This debate over/defense of the “patriotism” of predicting a decline in U.S. power is one of those cases where Kausfiles is fascinating to read, not so much for the information, but for the thought processes of the politicians and insiders. Kaus himself seems so caught up in this tactical justification, he completely misses several nonsequiturs which are assumed by the people he cites.

First, back to the instigation of this discussion. Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean recently said: “We won’t always have the strongest military.” Dem hopeful John Kerry’s campaign aide Chris Lehane responded that Dean’s words raise “serious questions about his capacity to serve as commander in chief.” The Dean camp has countered some recent quotes by Bill Clinton along the same lines as Dean’s: “We need to be creating a world that we would like to live in when we’re not the biggest power on the block.”

The verbal scuffle which has commenced is fun, for sure, but a closer look demonstrates some assumptions held by many liberals which undercut their credibility on security issues.

For starters, the question of whether or not the United States has the strongest military in the world in perpetuity is entirely within our own control. Liberals shy away from this by holding to what I would call a “fate-based” philosophy. In their view, it is inevitable that other powers will come to the fore, and America will recede - diplomatically, economically and militarily. This is a “lesson of history,” in their judgment. If this assumption is accepted, it strongly suggests a policy as described by President Clinton: Be nice now, and other countries will be nice in return when they have the power. In turn, diplomacy (friend-making) becomes the crucial zone of policy; economic concessions are encouraged; and the use of force is to be strictly avoided, and minimal when it is required. Indeed, the Clinton administration’s foreign policy amply demonstrated policies which flow from the above assumption of American decline. Dean is following this approach, judging by his statements.

The Bush administration, most Republicans, many Democrats and the vast majority of independent-minded Americans hold a different viewpoint: America was established to break the cycles of history, and the mayhem and oppression which have been the result. They see American power as a force for good in the world, not only for protection of U.S. land and interests. What is that “good”? To break history’s cycle elsewhere. Most Americans understand two key points: That U.S. strength is a check on aggressive ambitions worldwide, lowering the level of violence by the U.S. military’s mere presence; and that for this “deterrent factor” to remain viable, threats of force against the world’s most severe violators of peace must be backed up by overwhelming use of force.

These two positions were purified in the debate over war with Iraq. The roughly three-quarters of Americans who ultimately favored military action understood the role the United States must play to maintain a semblance of peace and stability in a world still largely undemocratic and unfree. They also understand that the U.S. must work toward bringing freedom and democracy to the oppressed if the level of violence is to be reduced on a continuing basis across time. Picking our battles, methods and timing will always be a source of vigorous debate (rightly so), but the basic philosophy - America as leader on history’s path toward freedom and democracy - unites this large core of citizens.

Another reference inside Kaus’s look at the Dean-comment-spurred discussion displays the break in understanding and beliefs many liberals have from the majority of Americans. Kaus quotes an article by Robin Wright in Slate, published last fall, which looks at the National Defense Strategy laid out by the administration. Her words:

“Apparently the administration is counting on China to undergo a kind of spiritual transformation. ‘In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness. In time, China will find that social and political freedom is the only source of that greatness.’ Meanwhile, the United States will somehow escape this particular epiphany, and will follow the outdated path of pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors ...”

This smug appraisal could not be a more perfect demonstration of my point. “Threaten its neighbors”? As far as I know, Mexico is not hastily preparing a Maginot Line to stop the Anglo hordes. The U.S. does maintain power to threaten some nations - run by despots with aggressive intentions. We do not “threaten,” say France (despite its obtuseness) or Brazil (despite electing a socialist). But we do “threaten” North Korea, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe, and even today’s China, all of which seek greater power through violence, oppression and territorial conquest. Is our “threat” in these cases a bad thing?

Excuse me, Robin, you may have missed this, but America has already had its “epiphany,” 225 years ago. It’s called the Declaration of Independence. The reason American strength - military, economic and diplomatic - has continued its climb unabated is written in the founding documents. The U.S. bases its entire rationale on the belief that all forms of political strength rise up from the individual; free individuals are capable of exercising far greater power; therefore a free and democratic society leverages political power far beyond the capabilities of authoritarian regimes. If China’s market liberalization transfers to political and social institutions, China will indeed become a great power. It will also no longer pose any threat to the U.S.

In a way, Clinton’s typically slippery statement on a future world is accurate, if we move the emphasis to “creating a world that we would like to live in” and focus on the support and spread of democracy and freedom. Part of that “creation” involves the legitimate threat of overwhelming U.S. power. And the “creative” process never ends.

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