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Stop Foreign Policy at the Water’s Edge, or....
by George de Poor Handlery, Ph.D.
21 February 2004

It is appropriate to emphasize that if politicking is not made to stop at the water’s edge, the storm to come inland will not stop on the shore either.


America’s foreign policy is often more scary than comforting if you gaze attentively at the animal from where this writer sits, which is in the middle of Europe. Accordingly to my visitors from “homes” -- there is one to my East and another one to my West -- the landscape behind the monitor is overwhelming. Even so, the scenery cannot compensate for the picture that emerges if my eyes focus at our policy with the world.

The foregoing might have sufficed to convince you that I am a pessimist. Quite wrong! I am an optimist and it is this optimism that makes me welcome the opportunity to contribute my view on the USA’s problems -- frequently self-made -- as we try to deal with the world. America has the means, the opportunity and the collective intelligence to prevail in the service of the cause she stood for rather consistently since her founding. However, capabilities and a decent record do not amount to predestination. This being so it is, for those enabled to do so, a duty of good citizenship to underline successes as well as to emphasize understated perils. If this is so, I have two subjects to choose between. One pertains to Washington’s hither successes in the current emergency. It is quite tempting to discuss the elimination of the insane but in-the-moment-of-action possibly WMD-less Saddamite régime. Equally salivating is the case of nutty Gadhafi who, in the end, chose not to become part of a burned fruit-cake. So persuaded he fessed up to his intended crimes and actual misdemeanors. Or take the readiness of that physically pot-bellied, but mentally mummified Stalinist, Dear-Leader-Kim of nuclear blackmail fame. I mean the guy who is suddenly getting readier and readier to talk turkey. He probably concluded that he is not hirsute enough to benefit from the free-of-charge shave you-know-who got through the good offices of the US Army. Should the Nuclear Mullahs be left out? How long will they be able to continue to radiate from the country they had kidnapped? It would be unfair to discuss only at the end the first deployment of US anti-missile defense systems. You know, the gadget that the Demo-litionists assured us cannot be built.

So, there is plenty of good news about a breeze in our sails. It should help us negotiate the peril of the shoals hiding around us.

America has the virtue of being optimistic (at times, too much so) and the weakness of not looking far beyond the water’s edge. Therefore, this writing will, in an attempt to compensate, focus on some of challenges that lurk under the surface set to ram our boat.

For years I had a successful lecture topic about issues connected to nuclear proliferation. Frankly, I operated under the assumption that (a) it will not happen outside a limited circle of nations and that, (b) madmen reaching for, getting close to WMDs, will be stopped militarily by the leading nations of the globe. This irrespective of what might separate them ideologically. Obviously, this view was in error. My error is one I liked to point out in an other lecture: rational individuals are prone to assume that others are smart and sane enough to act rationally, that is, in tune with their interests. Tongue-in-cheek, believing in the general ability to be guided by reason is about as unreasonable as one can get. Insanity has, when it takes action, a twisted reason behind it. The worse thing that reasonable nations can do is that when targeted by madness that has taken over a territory with people and its means, is to assume that if the crazies are accommodated, “they will become more reasonable.”

I also used to surmise that the lessons of the Hitler-Lenin-Stalin-Mussolini era are understood and will be applied. How dumb! No, it is worse: it was naïve. What did not work with Commies, Nazis and Fascists is not working for Israel with Arafat, for us with Imams perched on the peaks of their minarets, or for Europeans in the case of their coddled Islamist immigrants. You know, the folks who want to shape the country they fled to into a copy of the one they fled from. (If this -- and the attitude of some immigrant groups now in the USA is expressly included -- defies logic then do not bother to point it out to them. They are conditioned not to get it.)

The topics of politically empowered irrationality, nuclear proliferation and our tradition of productive compromises intersect. Therefore, one aspect of the complex WMD issue shall follow.

A few years ago, incidentally while the Soviet Union still had a pulse, only a few countries had WMDs, the popular pinnacle of which were nuclear weapons. Most of the overt and covert members of the nuclear club were developed countries. Development and democracy, that is the acceptance of certain norms regulating human behavior, were givens in these instances. In the case of the states that could not be accused of high political development -- notably the USSR and the PRC -- they were at least visible countries with established governments. Against such holders of WMDs their targeted victim could react. The assuredly totally devastating retaliation thus had a target: a “return of the destruction to the sender” was guaranteed. Granted, the situation under MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was a precarious peace, for it was based on a negative, namely upon the assumption that war is unprofitable. Our current situation differs significantly from what we had for decades after 1949 (the end of the US’ global nuclear monopoly.)

The Soviets and the Chireds under Mao might have been insane in a number of areas. Not the least of which is economics. But they were manned by people who tricked and boxed themselves into the state house. They had gained something, they understood a process and they now thought that they had something to lose.

Currently a number of “crazies” are, as we well know, quite interested in getting access to WMDs. They either have no country -- a target for retaliation such as el Quaida -- or they feel that their “country” transcends the territory they happen to usurp -- the self-appointed leaders of Pan-movements. Therefore they cannot be hit by their victim without killing many innocents -- so here one can count on the protection of the humanitarian inhibitions of the “Satan.” Or, quite like Hitler regarding Germans, they do not care about the real-estate they lord over. With such people, retaliation made likely after the fact does not work. The new case and the old pattern of our experience simply do not match.

Add to the above the primary threat of the moment, namely of Islamist radicalism. The point about these jihadists is not that they are willing to sacrifice their own life for which they do not care. The real point is that more than anything else in their program, they are determined to commit anything to annihilate US. WMDs in their hands present us with a totally new situation. Against this threat there is no effective dissuasion. Political solutions -- they always assume a common denominator of interests and some reason -- are useless. All one can do in self-defense is to remove the threat before it can materialize. This makes much of the present international law irrelevant and in need of updating. (There are circles with a vested interest in proving that “America has violated international law.” For their benefit: it is a fact that in response to new situations the law has been, sensibly, revised in the past.)

We now return to the US scene so as to proceed from the facts the way they appear to the writer. America is the incorporation of the modern world. This makes her the focus of the fear-induced hatred of those who feel unable to cope with the future they dread. This makes us the primary target -- albeit not into the only target -- of fanatics such as the radical Islamists. Historically it proved to be a strength of the country that politics (we are in an election year!) ended at the water’s edge. From where the writer sits, everything about our international relations is becoming politicized. Was action in Afghanistan commensurate? Was the President, whose main sin is to belong “to the other party,” right to move against Saddam in the light of what he knew or had reason to assume? Worse of all, what to do, or ignore next, is subordinated to election politics.

One can understand an opposition that prefers to elect by any means its own President. To follow national interest considerations by taking certain matters involving the existence of the nation out of the fray is better for the country than for the party. A demonstration of patriotic statesmanship might be worth much for the history books. But as a vote getter now it is weak medicine. Still, anyone can see, it is better to inherit a thriving country than a hemorrhaging one. Thus, looking beyond the election, it is appropriate to emphasize that if politicking is not made to stop at the water’s edge, the storm to come inland will not stop on the shore either.

George Handlery is a recently retired professor of European and American history. He has lived and taught in Europe since 1976.

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