As we confront Iraq — after 12 years of patient diplomacy — the thoughts and prayers of all Americans are surely focused on our servicemen and women, innocent Iraqi victims of Saddam’ s regime, and anxious families here at home.
Most Americans support U.S. military action, but a vocal minority does not. This is democracy. We should all be grateful that we live in a country where government dissent does not mean imprisonment or murder.
Critics of the war misuse the term “unilateral” to describe an action supported by 50 nations. The word really is meant to encapsulate critics’ discomfort with the exercise of American leadership outside the explicit approval of the “international community,” presumably the United Nations.
But American leadership is not a bad thing. After all, the United States is the oldest living democracy among the major powers. In its short history, America has cured polio, outlawed slavery, conquered Hitler and Communism, transformed Germany and Japan into thriving democracies, sent men to the moon, and liberated France, Italy, Eastern Europe, Panama, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.
In pursuit of many of these triumphs, American leaders met dissension and doubt, mostly abroad. But, as Margaret Thatcher once asked: “What great cause has ever been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus?’”
If all Presidents merely sought consensus, Thomas Jefferson would have reconsidered the Louisiana Purchase. Critics called the purchase — which doubled the size of the nation — too expensive, a foolish deal, and patently illegal. Similarly, if he cared only about popularity, Lincoln would have sought a truce in the Civil War. So despised was Lincoln, he received death threats almost daily, Europeans considered trade alliances with the rebel South, major newspapers pilloried him, his top general ran against him for president, and his Treasury Secretary called him an “embarrassment” and resigned.
Today George Bush and Tony Blair lead the way in confronting a dangerous aggressor and liberating his people, while the U.N. dithers, debates, and bickers. Indeed, Bush and Blair’s leadership against Iraq and the larger war on terrorism parallels the Reagan/Thatcher resolve against Communism a generation earlier, and Roosevelt and Churchill’ s collaboration to save England from Nazi invasion well before America entered World War II.
In those times, as today, the two leaders of the Atlantic Alliance carried forward with their mission — despite sizable domestic opposition, skepticism, and hostility from European elites, and pundits’ predictions of doom and disaster.
If naysayers had had their way, Franklin Roosevelt would never have come to the aid of Churchill’s England prior to Pearl Harbor. Just as they do today, millions rallied against America’s foreign policy — even famous celebrities, such as Charles Lindbergh and the radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin. Roosevelt’s own ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy, prophesied that democracy was “finished” and Hitler unstoppable. He urged appeasement.
But Roosevelt ignored them. He understood Hitler’s threat, recognizing it would eventually reach U.S. shores. And without American assistance, England would surely have been lost to the Nazis, who might then have won the war.
Today, history celebrates Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as major victors in the war against Communism. But in their time, both weathered unfriendly polls, burnings in effigy, and the protests and marches of millions. In the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter depicted Reagan as a “war monger,” and predicted that Reagan’s “naïve” confrontation of the Soviet Empire would “move us toward the precipice” of nuclear war.
Millions marched in European capitals against Reagan’s deployment of U.S. missiles to defend their countries. In 1983, the Washington Postnoted with alarm that “[f]ew Europeans are comfortable with President Reagan’s ideological challenge to the Soviets.” The 1983 liberation of the island of Grenada from a communist dictatorship had “troubled” Europeans, the Post explained, who saw it as “a naive and dangerous venture conducted without concern for negative repercussions among [European] allies.” Sound familiar?
There are countless other examples of such shortsightedness. Pundits predicted mass casualties and a long conflict just before the first President Bush liberated Kuwait in 100 hours and the second President Bush collapsed the Taliban government of Afghanistan in a matter of days.
And now it’s Iraq. Once again, the critics scoff, protesters protest, and Europeans doubt. As for me, I would prefer to follow America’ s course than that of a skeptical world.
After all, as Thomas Paine once wrote: “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.”
— Jon Kyl is a Republican United States senator from Arizona.