U.S. signals to the victims of ‘evil empires’
Margaret Thatcher was fond of saying that Ronald Reagan had brought down the Soviet Union without firing a single shot. A lovely tribute, but alas, not true. The truth is that many, many American shots were fired and a good deal of American blood was shed, as in Korea and Vietnam, and an untold amount of American armaments and treasure were spread all around the world.
True, not all these shots were fired for the immediate purpose of "containing" the Soviet Union. But given the nuclear standoff between us, and given that the American people, though in a somewhat up-and-down fashion, were willing to support their country's assumption of the responsibilities of world power, we successfully became the protector of Western Europe.
It was an extraordinary project, the Truman Doctrine. We have forgotten just how extraordinary all the investments, military and political, that followed from it.
Still, Reagan did something that cannot be measured by the hardheaded: He called out to the prisoners of communism that he was there, that he heard them and knew that they were living in the "evil empire." Those two seemingly simpleminded words, "evil empire," had earned him nothing but ridicule in the precincts of the worldly but not in the gulags and prisons or on the dangerous streets of Russian-controlled cities, where the words spread like wildfire. Those who had been suffering the oppressions of communism said that for the first time they felt real hope. (And it is, of course, hope not money or guns or policy that turns out to be the truest solvent of enslavement.)
And it is more than a little heart-wrenching to be reminded of Reagan at a time when we live under a president who seems like nothing so much as a preening adolescent, someone who travels far to spread the word that the world has little to fear from us. Even while our armies are fighting to the death in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is reason to believe we will be gone before we have achieved anything close to our original purposes in being there in other words, before we have established the idea once so benignly brought home to the Japanese that you cannot attack the United States without going down to full defeat.
So what is now to be our role in the world? To begin with, it must be said that to no other nation can such words be applied. Usually, after all, nations are not arrangements entered into but developments that happen. They are the results of nature, accidents of geography, the movement and spread of lan- guage, wars and hatreds and rivalries and the settlement of rivalries. But boasting, we too often forget, what has turned out to be the oldest continuously surviving form of popular government on earth, the United States was a nation invented by, let us ever be on our knees in gratitude, a group of men of political genius, whom a benign providence happened to place upon the eastern shores of a vast and rich and empty continent.
Aside from the fact that it would take nearly a century and an almost unimaginably bloody civil war to keep their invention whole we remain beneficiaries of what they devised for us there in Philadelphia nearly 234 years ago.
Much has certainly changed in the American nation during all these years most notably, perhaps, the variety of the ethnic makeup of its population and much promises to continue changing yet the system under which we are governed would still be recognizable, I maintain, to the Founders.
Now, other countries do not have "roles." They may wish to conquer, to placate or to dominate, but they do not set out to create, democratize and defend virtually a whole continent's worth of dependent democracies, as we did in Western Europe (and as we also did in Japan) at the end of WWII.
Nor do they for no purpose of state, for instance, call upon their citizens for little or no gain to themselves to travel to far-off wretched communities and teach their people how to build infirmaries and schools and to grow better crops with which to feed themselves. It has been said by some that spreading democracy was for us a merely practical matter, because democracies do not go to war against one another, but that hardly exhausts the subject of the role we have been playing in the world.
How, for instance, can we overlook our countrymen's singular impulse to philanthropy? Show them the picture of a hungry or sick or orphaned child, and they will set about doing something for him. Indeed, show Americans images of a plight anywhere and they will respond with assorted expressions of generous outrage. That Americans are like this may have some connection to the fact that so many of us had ancestors brave enough to take themselves out of dark, unhappy places and settle here, with all the belief in possibility such a move implies. Softminded as it sounds, this has even at times played no small part in their assuming the burdens of foreign policy.
Now we are engaged in two wars. NBC, ABC, et al., and our current administration permitting, we may leave both Iraq and Afghanistan in an at least manageable condition. Which leaves us with the far-too-longdelayed problem of Iran and its bomb.
We once had something of a friend in Iran, the shah, and far too calmly witnessed his ouster by radical fanatics. Next we sat by for 14 months as U.S. diplomats were held prisoner in Tehran. Now Iran is going nuclear, under the leadership of men who have openly declared that they care less for the survival of their population than for the spread of their religion. The most urgent question facing us is what, if anything, the United States must do about this. We are already engaged in warfare about which many Americans are doubtful, and we are in economic difficulty.
Even for the most responsible nation on earth there may be limits to what can be undertaken without wide support. Our only potential partner in stopping the Iranian bomb is a tiny and far-from-popular country named Israel, whose very existence would be threatened. But as millions learned to their immense sorrow in places named Munich and Yalta, it does only great evil to deceive oneself about a threat.
Midge Decter is an author and former leader in anti-communist groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger and the Committee for the Free World.