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Comments & Responses

Comments & Responses

Mini Teaser: Conrad Black responds to Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson

by Author(s): Conrad Black

An American Tradition

In their Fall 2005 essay, Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson savagely attacked the foreign policy of President George W. Bush for aggressively pursuing "the end of tyranny"--effectively to the exclusion of all other concerns.

They accepted the declaration of the president that the "United States has no right, no desire and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else." But they declared that "the conclusion is inescapable that [the Bush Administration's] actions belie its words." To the extent that Bush doesn't have the American military at the throat of every undemocratic regime in the world, it is merely "the tentative and inconsistent application of a bad policy." These authors likened George W. Bush, in his universalist zeal, to Danton and Robespierre!

In fact, the administration has made no effort to destabilize more than a couple of authoritarian regimes. What the current president is doing is a good deal less worrisome than the John F. Kennedy promise to "bear any burden" for liberty. President Kennedy didn't really mean it either, of course. But that pledge, or at least the spirit that inspired it, played some role in the ill-considered and faultily executed Vietnam commitment.

It is a well-practiced technique of American foreign policy formulation--and not just since the much-maligned Woodrow Wilson--to clothe initiatives in idealistic motives and goals when self-interest, as in all other countries, is the key to American foreign policymaking. Traditionally, the exigencies of domestic politics require such an effort if the president is not to lose support for his policy, as Wilson, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson eventually did, as war presidents, despite their attempts to sell sincerely idealistic goals.

Tucker and Hendrickson set great store by the fact that George W. Bush, while invoking the championship of liberty of the Founding Fathers of the country, has strayed from their sensible isolationism.

George Washington could not have got rid of the British without the aid of the French. The America of President Thomas Jefferson had a population scarcely greater than metropolitan Atlanta today and was in no condition to do anything more ambitious than famously pursue the Barbary pirates. Madison was unable even to subdue Canada, despite Britain's heavy distraction with the Napoleonic Wars. The British chased Madison from the White House and burned much of Washington. President Polk seized Texas and several other eventual states, largely to offer a placebo to the South for the extension of slavery.

When the country was not strong enough to do more than claim to be a light to the world, it shone in that role. When it was strong enough to keep others out of its hemisphere, but was too politically and morally conflicted by slavery and the threat of secessionism to do more than that, it confined itself to that.

From 1815 to 1917 the Pax Britannica protected the United States, making most current invocations of the foreign policy views of Washington, Jefferson and John Quincy Adams (much less John Tyler, whom Tucker and Hendrickson quote approvingly) almost irrelevant.

When the United States emerged after 1865 as, with the British and German Empires, the greatest power in the world, it debated whether even to take over Hawaii, saber-rattled about the Venezuelan and Alaskan boundaries, gave the decrepit Spanish an undeserved drubbing in a Boys' Own Annual war, invented Panama to build a canal, mediated between the Russians and the rising Japanese, and painted the Navy white and sent it around the world. Successive presidents effectively allowed the United Fruit Company and other corporations to deploy the U.S. Marines to secure their right to exploit cheap Latin American labor and natural resources. All of these initiatives were swaddled in some sort of idealism, or at least given a retributive character.

Wilson concluded that German victory in Europe would be a menace to the United States itself. He purported to be trying to make the "world safe for democracy", to promote international law, an international organization that would uphold that law and the self-determination of nationalities. It was, of course, a fiasco, apart from providing the margin of Allied military victory. But it wasn't an ignoble, or even a particularly utopian, set of objectives, and most of them were achieved later. First Wilson's goals--and then his perceived naivety--achieved mythic proportions.

Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged in 1940 to keep America out of war by arming the democracies. His idiosyncratic definition of neutrality was to extend U.S. territorial waters from three to 1,800 miles, order the U.S. Navy to attack German ships on detection, and in what he magnificently compared to lending a neighbor a garden hose if his house were on fire, "loan" the British anything they asked for, including 26,000 military aircraft, having already traded them fifty destroyers for naval bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean.

For good measure, Roosevelt cut off all Japanese access to oil, of which it imported 85 percent of its needs, and scrap iron that was the basis of its steel production. Having pledged to keep the country out of war, he did the necessary to be dragged into war, because he knew that the American national interest required the defeat of the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists.

When threatened by imperial German domination of Europe, by Nazi and Japanese domination of the Eurasian land mass and western Pacific, and by Soviet communism, the United States embraced universalist goals and added itself to the forces of resistance in an ever more important role as the 20th century progressed: to provide the strength necessary to contain, and then remove, the threat.

The source of the present terrorist threat is so elusive that it requires an adaptation of familiar methods, but not the abandonment of the idealistic gloss on the pursuit of the national interest.

Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated modern American security policy in 1941. On January 6 of that year, in his State of the Union message, he stated that: "We must always be wary of those who, with sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, would preach the 'ism of appeasement." And on December 8, in referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said that: "We will make very certain that this form of treachery never again endangers us." The United States has not been an appeasement power, and it retains a deterrent strength that has dissuaded any other country from attacking it directly since Pearl Harbor.

The authors of the September 11, 2001, attacks and their supporters, Saddam Hussein among the most conspicuous of them, thought they had found a way around this with a nationally anonymous attack upon the innocents and a transnational terrorist leader (Osama bin Laden) as ostentatious organizer. Saddam was a secular figure, but he postured as the sword and champion of the Muslim world and bankrolled radical Arabs, and he was the de facto leader of militant Islam.

Though they were not the principal reasons that the administration gave for the Iraq War, the reasonable supposition is that the administration wanted to reaffirm the American deterrent and to give the Arab masses, in one of their principal countries, a different method of government to the corrupt despotisms that were all they had known, and to the radical theocracies that were the principal, visible Muslim alternative.

Much of the international enthusiasm and sympathy for America after 9/11, apart from a natural civilized revulsion at the massacre of civilians, was really a desire to collegialize America's response. It was claimed in effect that American power was invalidly used unless approved by the world, even in support of defined U.S. security interests and following outrageous provocations. As Tucker and Hendrickson put it, though, unfortunately approvingly, the "democracy" of a UN vote was to be determining. This is a more radical and naive and dangerous view of the role of democracy than anything Bush has enunciated. An organization infested with corrupt dictatorships has no democratic legitimacy. It was the United States that was attacked, not Zimbabwe or Belarus.

The objections at the time to the American-led invasion of Iraq--that the United States must find Bin Laden (Bill Clinton's position), or deal with North Korea, or resolve the Israel-Palestine problems, before embarking on any campaign against Saddam Hussein--were just pretexts for doing nothing.

Serious errors have been made in Iraq, especially in disbanding the Iraqi military and police, and this was an inexplicably ahistorical thing to do. (The Japanese army in China, though they had been harsh foreign occupiers, once under the ultimate command of General MacArthur, maintained order in much of China in an unexceptionable way for some months after the end of World War II.)

The outcome in Iraq is unpredictable. It is unlikely to be such a shambles as to arouse nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. But the Iraq War has already re-established the credibility of the U.S. deterrent, a sine qua non to the peace of the world these sixty years. And the fact that not so much as a firecracker has been set off by terrorists in the Americas since September 11, 2001, is an indication of the rejuvenated fear of American deterrence and the will to use it. Killing English, Spaniards, Kenyans or Indonesians is no less an outrage than killing Americans, but it does not drag the red cape in front of so formidable an enforcer of its national inviolability.

Whatever the extent of its ultimate success, George W. Bush's campaign for democracy is not the mad quixotic crusade Tucker and Hendrickson fear. Bush's robust vocabulary and universalist pretensions, like his claim to a "Doctrine" (Stimson, Truman, Nixon and Reagan had theirs, too), are all part of American tradition. Serious commentators and historians should focus on results and not be distracted by inevitable American sloganeering, however tiresome and histrionic it may be.

Essay Types: Essay