Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

America in the World

Senator George McGovern accepts the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 at Miami Beach. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
On the burden of it all

For as long as anyone can remember, conservatives have been labeled “warmongers.” Gore Vidal called William F. Buckley Jr. “the leading warmonger in the United States.” Reagan was called a “warmonger” every day, as was Goldwater before him.

Bella Abzug, the radical congresswoman from New York, was a little more creative. She accused Reagan of conducting a “Rambo-Bonzo foreign policy.” (John Rambo was an action hero; Bonzo was the chimp in a Reagan movie, from 1951.)

John Bolton is a veteran Reaganite, and Goldwaterite, for that matter: On Election Day 1964, when he was 15, he got permission to be absent from school, in order to pass out leaflets for Goldwater. He has served in every Republican administration from Reagan on.

His critics on the left have always called him a “warmonger” — that’s dog-bites-man. But lately, man has been biting dog.

When Bolton published a memoir in June, damning of President Trump, the Republican National Committee issued a statement calling Bolton, among other things, a “warmonger.” Trump called him a “warmongering fool.” “All he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody,” said Trump.

At the same time, Eliot Engel was in a fight for his political life. Engel is a veteran Democratic congressman from New York, though very different from the late Abzug: He is the last of the JFK Democrats, a man whose foreign-policy views are closer to Bolton’s than to those of the average Democratic politician today. Jacobin — a magazine true to its name — slammed him as “a longtime and steadfast warmonger.”

In a Democratic primary, Engel was defeated by his radical challenger, Jamaal Bowman, in a landslide.

On Twitter, I noted that Left and Right seemed united in labeling such as Bolton and Engel “warmongers.” A writer for The American Conservative magazine replied, “It’s like the only good thing going on.” Many think so.

Back in 1906, the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave its peace prize to President Theodore Roosevelt — chiefly for his mediation in the Russo–Japanese War. The president’s critics were aghast. The New York Times, for example, thought that “a broad smile illuminated the face of the globe” when a prize for peace was awarded to “the most warlike citizen of these United States.”

Seven years later, Roosevelt wrote his autobiography, which included a line that, again, left critics aghast. “In my judgment,” he said, “the most important service that I rendered to peace was the voyage of the battle fleet around the world.”

In 1953, the Nobel committee gave its prize to another distinguished American, George C. Marshall. His part in the defeat of the Nazis was a fine contribution to peace. But he won the prize for the Marshall Plan, or the “European Recovery Program,” as he was the only one to call it. He gave a Nobel lecture that remains one of the most unusual in history.

He said that the United States was weak in the late 1930s, making it vulnerable to war; and that after the war, the U.S. made itself weak again, which emboldened North Korea to invade the South. Marshall was tired of having to “rebuild our national military strength in the very face of the gravest emergencies.”

Since World War II, there have been 13 U.S. presidents, some more hawkish, some more dovish — but all of them, pretty much, recognizing the need for American engagement with the world, and leadership in it. (Trump is a special case, deserving of its own piece, and books.)

In 2009, President Obama was a peace laureate, and he said in his lecture,

Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.

We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Within the Cold War, of course, were hot wars — including Vietnam. After the disaster there, many Americans were afflicted with “Vietnam syndrome”: an aversion — well understandable — to U.S. involvement overseas, especially military involvement. In 1991, after our swift and decisive victory in the Gulf War, President Bush (41) could not help exclaiming, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

The Nineties were by and large a “holiday from history,” in which Americans sought a “peace dividend”: relief from foreign-policy burdens. In a sense, the Nineties ended on September 11, 2001.

“Islamic killers are over here,” wrote Patrick J. Buchanan, “because we are over there.” Others had a different view: We are going to have to confront them regardless, either here or there — and better there.

About the “endless wars,” there will be endless debate. The Iraq War ended much as Vietnam did, though, after he withdrew our troops, Obama found he had to go back, after ISIS engulfed the space we had vacated.

President Trump would like to withdraw from Afghanistan, once and for all, by Election Day — a perfectly understandable desire. It has been 19 years. But the Taliban is poised to retake power, and they are still in brotherly alliance with al-Qaeda. Is a U.S. withdrawal in the U.S. interest? Again, a robust debate, featuring various worthy opinions.

Madeleine Albright, a secretary of state under President Clinton, called the United States “the indispensable nation.” “We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future,” she said. She spoke unblushingly about “freedom, democracy, and the American way of life.”

You can perhaps forgive her her mush, because she was born in Czechoslovakia in May 1937 — about a year and a half before the Munich Agreement. Her father was a diplomat (who, at the University of Denver, would teach another secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice).

No one believes that the U.S., or any other nation, can watch over the fall of every sparrow — or the invasion of every country, such as Ukraine, or the gassing of every Syrian child. “We can’t be the world’s policeman,” the Left used to say, during the Cold War. Trump says the very same today, as he did recently to graduating West Point cadets.

So true. But as Jeane Kirkpatrick said, what if there’s a world criminal? Who will police him? Will he simply go unchecked, creating mayhem and terror?

Today, as always, there are fearsome threats — including nuclear ones from Iran and North Korea. Other nations will do what they can, and they are not powerless or helpless. But they, inevitably, will turn their eyes to the U.S., and the U.S. cannot look away, even if we wanted to kiss our allies goodbye — because Iranian and North Korean rulers have it in for us, too.

“Gonna lay my burden down,” goes an old gospel song. “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” Who can speak against such desires, such longings?

In his 1988 convention speech, Vice President Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, chided his Democratic opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, saying, “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. And I see America as the leader — a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

Plenty of Americans, left and right, would opt for being another pleasant country, tucked between Tanzania (“United Republic of”) and Uruguay.

In his own convention speech, 16 years before Bush’s, Senator George McGovern said, “Come home, America,” over and over, in his peroration. This too has tremendous and perpetual appeal. But the world tends to find you, in ugly ways, even if you want to stay snug at home.

On the opening night of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the journalist Howard Fineman wrote that the Brits “show us how to lose global power gracefully.” But our cousins, remember, had us Yanks to hand off to. And we have . . . the Chinese Communist Party? Putin? ISIS?

The other day, my colleague Kevin D. Williamson wrote,

We start from scratch, every generation. History does not bend inevitably toward justice, or freedom, or decency, or even stability. History doesn’t do that in Hong Kong, or in Moscow, or in Washington or New York City or Los Angeles. History goes where we push it. And if we don’t push, someone else will.

Two years ago, another colleague, Robert Kagan, wrote a book called “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.” I said to him, “The title tells the story, doesn’t it?” “Yes,” he said, with a laugh. “I debated whether it was necessary to write a book to go with the title.” The jungle indeed grows back. You have to keep it at bay, constantly, no matter how wearying it is — or expensive. The consequences of the jungle tend to be more expensive yet, not just in treasure but also in blood.

In a tradition of many decades now, foreigners and Americans alike have complained about the U.S. role in the world (not always unjustly, far from it). I often quote something John Bolton once said, about the foreigners: “They’ll miss us when we’re gone.” I’m afraid that we might miss us, too, when we’re gone — if we’re gone.

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