THE BLOG
03/11/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

War Games

The Right wants us to do so much more on the world scene. We should be intervening in so many places, they argue, and any failure to do so signifies inept and gutless leadership, a symptom of America's decline. The list of world spots where our military should be fighting includes at least Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan for starters.

There are numerous spokesmen for this viewpoint, powerful ones, with considerable access to the media. Harvard professor Niall Ferguson wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. was experiencing "the great taper," a term taken from Fed chairman Ben Bernanke when he called for a slowdown in that institution's efforts. Ferguson pointed out that, "it is not only U.S. monetary policy that is being tapered. Even more significant is the 'geopolitical taper.'" As a prime example, he claims that, "Syria has been one of the great fiascoes of post-World War II American foreign policy. When President Obama might have intervened effectively, he hesitated. When he did intervene, it was ineffectual... The result of U.S. inaction is a disaster." The title of his article: "America's Global Retreat."

Much of this rhetoric is overblown. In 1949, when Chaing Kai-Shek's corrupt regime was defeated by Mao's communists, the Right lambasted Truman for the "fall of China," clearly America's greatest foreign policy disaster. The list of these imagined milestones is amazingly long.

There are a number of problems with this approach. Most glaring of all, it fails to recognize that we cannot be everywhere, that there are places where our opinion simply does not matter.

The notion, for example, that we could have dictated outcomes in a global event like China going communist was farfetched. As the China historian John King Fairbank put it:

The illusion that the United States could have shaped China's destiny assumes that we Americans can really call the tune if we want to, even among 475 million people in... a subcontinent 10,000 miles away.

Second, the Right's worldview denies people in third world countries any sense of agency, any consideration that they should determine their own destiny, rather than have it imposed on them by a superpower. This is a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam, but it seems to have been lost by later generations, especially by those in the Bush White House, their allies in Congress, and modern day successors.

As the conservative columnist Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, writing in the even more conservative Orange County Register, House majority leader Eric Cantor is a member of this cadre. In a recent speech at Virginia Military Institute, Cantor "sketched a foreign policy agenda open to waging war in four Middle Eastern countries." According to Friedersdorf, "Cantor believes America should still be fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan... He criticized President Obama for failing to intervene in Syria... And he's open to the possibility of bombing Iran's nuclear program, despite intelligence reports showing that a... strike would merely delay, not prevent, Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon...." Not stopping there, "In the same speech, Cantor suggested that America should have intervened earlier in Libya, and that it should play a larger role in Tunisia."

It is fortunate that there are sane voices rebutting this adventurism, on all sides. That columnist wrote, "if the GOP establishment persists in espousing views more in line with defense contractors than rank-and-file conservatives, they may succeed in throwing the 2016 election to the Democrats. Americans are tired of spending money in the Middle East... More than that, they're tired of seeing our troops bleed and die there."

The worst consequence of the war hawks, however, is their failure to recognize our greatest weapon in the modern era -- the soft power of American ideals. And then, they often oppose and block its employment, neutering our best case for leadership.

Thus, while we might not choose, or be able, to intervene everywhere, we can still influence events by living up to our own highest values, by presenting a thriving democracy that fights for individual rights, for free speech, and for the citzenry's right to choose their own government. These are principles that win victories.

But too often, this effort is defeated by the Right. Take the example of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. It has been ratified by 141 countries, and is actively backed by former president George H. W. Bush, veteran's groups, and businesses. That list includes such noted liberal groups as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Wounded Warrior Project, the United States Chamber of Commerce, plus Coca-Cola, Walmart and IBM. And why not? After all, the measure is based on the Americans With Disability Act of 1990.

The treaty is soft power at its finest. The United States should be leading this campaign, presenting itself as a model that other nations choose to follow.

So what happened? Senate Republicans defeated the treaty, adopting the arguments of opponents like former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and the Heritage Foundation. They claimed that signing this treaty would permit UN enforcement over American homeschooling practices, and loosen access to abortion. None of which is true. Richard Thornburgh, attorney general during the first Bush presidency, declared, "There is nothing in this treaty that would allow what these critics allege."

The war hawks want giant government expenditures, more graves, and an America resented around the world, rather than admired -- or followed. They should listen instead to the words of one of the truly great Americans. Though he is talking about aerodynamics, the lesson applies to our foreign policy as well.

Wilbur Wright, inventor of manned flight for the world, wrote, "The best dividends... have invariably come from seeking more knowledge than more power." That choice still works.

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