The hard ques­tions of U.S. for­eign pol­icy

The Washington Times Daily - - Business -

Aperen­nial Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy de­bate sets “re­al­ism” against “ide­al­ism,” na­tional in­ter­est ver­sus moral­ity. The di­chotomy is of­ten over­stated. The two cur­rents di­vide and merge in­ces­santly in the flow of im­ple­ment­ing any con­crete over­seas pol­icy or tac­tic.

Amer­i­can states­men have ar­gued — con­tem­po­rary politi­cians no less than the Found­ing Fa­thers — that, in the ab­sence of the com­mon ground of race, eth­nic­ity and the shared his­tory of Amer­ica’s largely Euro­pean fore­bears, the essence of the repub­lic is ide­o­log­i­cal. Most Amer­i­cans, even if in­no­cent of the larger ar­gu­ment, still iden­tify them­selves as be­long­ing to a so­ci­ety based on free­dom of the in­di­vid­ual largely lodged in Bri­tish tra­di­tions of com­mon law. But that be­lief is joined in a larger JudeoChris­tian ethos of “the shin­ing city on the hill,” a per­ceived model of moral rec­ti­tude with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing mis­sion­ary zeal to share it with the rest of the world. And that is where be­lief in­ter­sects with U.S. for­eign pol­icy.

Where Amer­i­can for­eign ini­tia­tives have been suc­cess­ful, the moral con­cept has been an in­te­gral part of what pur­ported to be hard­nosed, even cyn­i­cal “re­al­ism” (what to­day has come to be called “soft power”), es­pe­cially when Washington suc­cess­fully led coali­tions, first against Nazism and then against com­mu­nism. For U.S. lead­er­ship rested not only on eco­nomic strength, first in re­build­ing Europe and Ja­pan and then aid­ing the so-called “de­vel­op­ing” world, but on its force as a model for re­solv­ing do­mes­tic con­flict with jus­tice in a peace­ful (the Civil War ex­cepted) if not al­ways or­derly fash­ion.

Pres­i­dent Obama has specif­i­cally re­jected this “Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism.” But de­spite his den­i­gra­tion of past U.S. ini­tia­tives, his pref­er­ence for “lead­ing from be­hind” and the carp­ing by the usual for­eign sus­pects of Amer­ica’s “real in­ten­tions,” the world still looks to Washington for lead­er­ship. But Amer­i­cans are now weary: Two Mideast wars seem to be end­ing in­con­clu­sively de­spite the ex­pen­di­ture — by U.S. stan­dards — of too much blood and ex­trav­a­gant riches.

Nev­er­the­less, even now, while public at­ten­tion is di­verted to a crip­pled econ­omy and the qua­dren­nial, some­times silly, sea­son of choos­ing new lead­er­ship, the U.S. is asked to take on new over­seas bur­dens. But just as 9/11, with its un­prece­dented at­tack on the Amer­i­can home­land (far more por­ten­tous in its strate­gic im­pli­ca­tions per­haps than Pearl Har­bor), for­ever changed per­cep­tions of the threat from abroad, the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion’s ef­fects on mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions, public opin­ion and the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem are hav­ing a pro­found im­pact. The Balkan wars in Bos­nia and Kosovo in the 1990s were pre­cur­sors in their ap­peals for Washington’s ad­ju­di­ca­tion when the Euro­peans, ini­tially, looked the other way at prob­lems on their doorstep. A gen­er­a­tion later in an­other cen­tury, Washington’s dilemma has not gone away, but per­haps grows.

Quite sud­denly, there is a dra­matic case in point: If you have not seen the 28-minute video “Kony 2012,” you prob­a­bly will soon. What­ever its mer­its — and it is un­der at­tack as naive even from those who share its spon­sors’ con­cerns in Uganda and else­where — its im­pact al­ready has mo­bi­lized the U.S. gov­ern­ment into ac­tion. Af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury of in­ac­tion, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has sent a 100-mem­ber mil­i­tary de­tach­ment to try to help Ugan­dans and other Cen­tral African gov­ern­ments cap­ture and bring to jus­tice one of the world’s great­est mon­sters, Joseph Kony, and his mis­be­got­ten Lord’s Re­sis­tance Army. For al­most three decades, this per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of evil has kid­napped and trained thou­sands of chil­dren in mass mur­der, seem­ingly with­out any aim other than in­flict­ing ter­ror and ex­ert­ing his per­sonal power. The film­mak­ers, re­vers­ing the old method­ol­ogy, are now try­ing to re­in­force their suc­cess­ful gov­ern­ment lob­by­ing by mo­bi­liz­ing public opin­ion.

The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary de­tach­ment’s task is daunt­ing, for Kony has re­treated into the Africa of Joseph Con­rad’s “Heart of Dark­ness.” As in so many guer­rilla con­flicts, there is con­sid­er­able pos­si­bil­ity that the con­flict will es­ca­late. It is not that the U.S. has not been down this road be­fore. But in this in­stance, no real ar­gu­ment has been made for U.S. “na­tional in­ter­est” — i.e., “re­al­ism” — but only an over­whelm­ing case for a hu­man­i­tar­ian cause for which Amer­i­can ex­per­tise is crit­i­cal.

U.S. mil­i­tary as­sis­tance is turn­ing up else­where in volatile Africa; for ex­am­ple, a mil­i­tary train­ing group set up re­cently in Mali to help pre­serve an­other frag­ile post-colo­nial state from dis­in­te­gra­tion. There will be other re­quests, cer­tainly.

And so a new round in the de­bate on re­al­ism ver­sus ide­al­ism be­gins.

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