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Decter – Foreign Policy: The Next Forty Years

Midge Decter
Foreign Policy: The Next Forty Years

The Philadelphia Society
40th! Anniversary Gala
Chicago, Illinois May 2, 2004

Before I begin there is something I wish to say.
It is not strictly related to our topic on this panel but it is not
exactly unrelated to it, either. And
that is: I am not now, nor for something like thirty years have I been, a
Neither are the following people neoconservatives: my
husband, my son, my three daughters, and those of my ten grandchildren who are
old enough to have serious political views.
Neocons were people who discovered in the course of the 1960s—or early
70s—that they could no longer stomach the cultural and political antics of
their former liberal friends and associates and discovered that, as Lenin
himself once put it, he who says A must say B.
One of our forebears, after all, was no less real a conservative than
Ronald Reagan. He, too, as a grown
man discovered his B. The reason I begin with this declaration, tiresome as it
undoubtedly seems, is that the charge of neoconservatism—which has in recent
times been leveled and fancifully
decorated by a strange alliance of hard-bitten Leftists and certain mysteriously
bitter members of the Old Right—this charge is a disingenuous stand-in for a
characterization of a different kind, namely, that a neoconservative is a Jew
who supports U. S. policy in Iraq not because he thinks it good for the United
States but only because he believes it will benefit Israel.
It is, in other words, meant to be a charge of dual loyalty on the part
of people like me. The reason I
bring this up is that, one, it will surely not surprise you to hear me assert
that I am a Jew, and two, it will probably not surprise you either to hear me
announce that I wholeheartedly support the war in Iraq.
Beside my belief that this war should be the beginning of a long-term
policy that will be in the interest not only of the security but of the cultural
and spiritual health of the United States, I also believe that it will
ultimately be in the interest of millions of oppressed Arabs, who have for too
long—with the not-all-that-historically distant connivance of British and
French imperialists–well, maybe post-World War I is pretty distant but
some of its consequences are with us stillit will ultimately also be
in the interest of millions of
ordinary Arabs who have for too long been left to languish under the heels of a
series of brutish, murderous despots. (And
as far as the Israelis themselves are concerned, I long ago decided that their
future security and well-being will ultimately either be looked after by
themselves or they will follow their European forbears into extinction.)

Having disposed (I hope) of the issue of neoconservatism, I will now be
obedient to my assignment.

course, discussion of foreign policy today inevitably begins with Iraq. Though I
sincerely hope it does not end there. To
begin with, I think we do well to remind
ourselves that we are in Iraq today because the United States set what would
prove to be very costly–and what seemed to some of us plain crazy–limitations
on ourselves back in 1990. Indeed,
three times since World War II the United States has gone to war with the kind
of limited aims for which we, and others in many parts of the world, are paying
to this day: I am speaking of the wars in Korea, in Vietnam, and in Iraq in
1991. In each case the supposedly
sensible, statesmanlike aim of the war was to reestablish a status quo ante,
that is, to push our opponents back behind a certain formerly negotiated
boundary: the 38th parallel, say, or the border between Iraq and
Kuwait. In all three cases we had no purpose and no definition of victory that
our enemy could understand. Thus
for half a century American troops have been stationed in Korea in defense of
the proposition that it was somehow better, more conducive to world peace and
justice, for the Korean people to live under two governments, one of which has
been comparatively benign, certainly economically so, and one of which was–and
remains–monstrous. About
Vietnam it is best not to speak at all, of course, lest we spend the rest
of what has been a wonderful
meeting in tears. Three different
Presidents were equally in the dark about what it was we were supposed to be up
to in that God-forsaken country. And
then there was Iraq–a country that invaded its smaller neighbor Kuwait because,
let us remember, in the person of a representative of the United States State
Department we gave Saddam Hussein explicit permission to do so. But when Saddam
with the utmost murderous brutality did what he believed we had given him
permission to do, an American President named George H.W. Bush declared
“This shall
not stand.” Upon which we bombed the damned place day and night for six weeks.
After that Saddam took his soldiers out of Kuwait and regrouped back in
Baghdad. Whereupon we said “Hooray! We won!” and returned home as fast as
our ships could carry us–not, however, before inciting the Shiites to rise
against their Baathist oppressors and then abandoning them to a brutal,
murderous fate (just how brutal and how murderous we would discover a dozen
years later upon opening the prisons torture chambers and digging up the mass
graves. (How any American policy-maker–lay or military–could have imagined
that the Shiites would celebrate our return in 2003 without spending a goodly
amount of time being suspicious of us and in need of a great deal of reassurance
is beyond
my comprehension. On the other hand, I find it perfectly comprehensible
that many Iraqis, even those who by now cheer for our presence in their midst,
could not really believe that the United States had no designs on their country.
For which other power on earth would be content, as we surely would be, if we
could succeed in leaving them with a reasonably benign,
economically independent, and yes, even to some extent democratic

Which brings me to the point
I wish to make here today. The
United States is unique among major
world powers–of course, for the time being anyway, it is the only
major world power–unique in that it has played and continues
to play this role all too reluctantly and far too often all too ineptly as well.
Ask yourselves how, coming victorious out of the charnel house that
Europe had made of itself before and during
World War II, with our troops having suffered something like three
hundred thousand casualties in doing so, ask yourselves how if we were not both
a reluctant and inept major world power we could in the midst of all that have
been instrumental in creating an institution like the United Nations.
Would anyone intending to stride the world like a colossus have done
something as high-mindedly foolish as that? (Not to say, of course, as plain
stupid as that–but that’s a subject for a different time.)

But whether it is played foolishly or brilliantly, the role of
colossus is one we have, at least for now, been designated by fate to play.
It is also a role that I imagine most Americans, tucked comfortably as
they are between two oceans and neighbored in the north and south by countries
named Canada and Mexico, would rather not play.
Life is comfortable for us on this continent–so comfortable, indeed,
that the meaning of September 11th, 2001, has been largely forgotten
by now. The flags that once flew
everywhere are mostly gone, and we are told by many of the pundits in our midst
that the outcome of the forthcoming presidential election will
depend entirely on the country’s October employment figures. In any
case, it is hard at this moment to predict whether we will stay the course in
Iraq or whether the administration will be forced by public opinion once again
to bring the boys home too soon, leaving chaos behind. And, even more important,
leaving the multinational terrorist conspiracy with the impression that despite
our spectacular might we are a country to be trifled with. The point is that we
have been stuck–and for most people, I think, “stuck” is the word—with
the role of the major world actor. We
did not volunteer for this role. And we play it apologetically.
(Look at us now, trying to figure out how to convince the Iraqis that we
have their interests in mind. And why should they not find it hard to believe?
Of which other power in the world would it be true?)
There is no doubt in my mind that most Americans would be more than
content were their country to be relieved of the responsibilities of great
powerhood. The problem is, there is no such relief in sight.
If the United States fails or refuses to act in some situation, that,
too, will constitute an action, and that, too, will have a price to pay, an
immeasurably heavy price, spiritual
as well as political.

There is a further. . .some would call it a problem–Henry Kissinger, for
one–and others would call it a point of pride. Whether you like it or not,
however, it is the case. And
that is, that Americans need to feel that there is
a purpose beyond mere national interest for our threatening or going to
war, a benign or politically generous purpose.
It would take a cultural historian far more learned than I to trace the
reasons for this fact bout us. No
doubt it makes it difficult for anyone to govern us in what the Old World would
consider a wise or sufficiently wily manner–and must sometimes make it
difficult to govern us period. Many think it childish, this demand of ours for
some higher purpose, but childish or not, it is simply the nature of the beast.
I call to witness the war in Vietnam. Kennedy took us to war in that
faroff country of which we knew nothing in the belief that we could mop it up in
three weeks or so. Lyndon Johnson was heard to boast of the fact that he was
prosecuting the war without, in his words, “stirring up war fever.”
By which he undoubtedly meant without taking the home front to war as had
been done—of necessity, to be sure, but also in high morale, during World War
II. And there was Richard Nixon,
who meant to conclude our adventure in Vietnam with honor but without
undertaking to do what was actually necessary to achieve that happy condition,
namely winning. By then, of course, the culture of the United States was in a
thoroughly corrupted condition, a condition that may take two more generations
to erase completely. (Many years ago when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State
Irving Kristol wrote an admiring article about him called “The Europeanization
of American Foreign Policy.” I
remember reading it and thinking, “All the lying, cowardice, cruelty, murder,
mayhem, rivers of blood and plain insanity that were let loose by the European
powers in the course of the 20th-century–what in God’s name does
he find so praiseworthy in the idea of Europeanization?”)

people think the need of so many Americans to feel they are doing good is
childish, but I for one love and admire my fellow ordinary Americans for it.
The question now, however, is, how do they, or how will they, feel about
Iraq? And the answer, I am afraid,
is not yet in.
The antiwar forces here at home who accounted themselves, and
rightly, the real victors in Vietnam are out and about once more exhibiting
their strength—or at least their capacity to make a good deal of noise. (Three
into the Iraq war they were already joyfully proclaiming it lost.) How
much power these forces have left is yet to be determined.
At least this time they are meeting serious opposition, both in the White
House and in the culture itself. Should
the forces of so-called “peace” win—and we will know more about this in
November—the demoralization that will inevitably follow their victory will
color the life of this country for a long, long time to follow.
(I use the word “demoralization” in its root meaning, that is, not
only a decline of morale but of morals as well, and on that score, as we
all know, the country has not so very far to fall.)

point is, however, that win or lose this time, the United States will still
continue to bear the weight of responsibility that comes with our being the
single greatest power on earth. We
cannot wish it away or argue it away, and if we pretend that we
can—quote—”come home America” untold millions of people on the earth
will suffer even more greatly than millions upon millions are suffering now, and
ultimately we will suffer along with them. That we did not volunteer to play
this role, and we of course did not, is nothing to the point.
As Shakespeare said, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
I remind you that for forty years we stayed the course in seeking to
restrict and ultimately to bring down Soviet power. Sometimes we did it well,
sometimes we did it foolishly, and sometimes we did it downright badly, but the
fact is that that congeries of policies we collectively call the Cold War
remained central to American purpose. And
many, many millions of people in the former Warsaw Pact countries are now
free to determine their own fate. It was in our interest, yes, but it is no
that what we determined was good for us ultimately spelled
liberation for them. In his famous
“Long Telegram” of 1946, what you might call the founding document

Of the Cold War, George Kennan concluded by saying:

In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful
observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the
Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain
gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this
implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on
their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral
and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

challenge now, of course, is not the Soviet Union.
Our challenge is not the
might of the Soviet military but the tenuous hold on reality of a number of
countries and movements in the Middle East who dream of participating in some
bygone collective greatness. As
Iraq has proved, the real danger posed at this moment by such governments and
movements lies not, as did the Soviet Union’s, in a vast collection of nuclear
weapons—though some of the countries who threaten us will soon have those,
Their danger to us lies in our enemies’ use of stealth.
In other words, terrorism in its various guises.
For terrorism is hard for armies of decent men to fight—indeed, for any
soldiers qua soldiers to fight. They
are required to do necessarily unpleasant things in order to get needed
information from those they capture, for instance, and using the means to do so
is something that American troops
and the American people in general are morally and spiritually ill-equipped to
do. Look at the fuss being made over the after-all hardly intolerable provisions
of the Patriot Act. And the terrorists are people—once I might have said men,
but, as we see, no longer—terrorists are people who dress and behave like
ordinary civilians, who act alone or in small groups, and who are thus able, for
instance, to cross borders with considerable ease in order to commit their
mayhem. Fighting them, then, is
truly dirty work, work for which
tanks and armored cars and planes do not apply, at least not by themselves.
And to which, as I said, some of the domestic niceties of criminal
procedure also do not apply. But such work is now essential. On the other hand,
in fighting terror, as in opposing Communism, we are at least granted the
knowledge that what is done
to defend ourselves against terror will also provide
defense—and who know? one day perhaps even freedom—to millions of far-off
innocent people. For as we have
already learned, or should have, the guns and grenades and, yes, poison gases
that may be turned on us will for a certainty be turned on them as well.

did not, I repeat, ask for this
responsibility. We are not a
warlike people. But in George
Kennan’s words—and despite the fact that Kennan himself later tried to
betray them, for the sake of our country’s future, it is well for us to be
reminded that we can now—these words are well worth repeating—experience a
certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people
withthis implacable challenge, has made our entire security as a nation
dependent on our pulling ourselves together and accepting the responsibilities
of moral and political leadership that history plainly intends us to bear.

certain gratitude. And with that
gratitude the return of spiritual health and high spirits that are our natural
inheritance as Americans.

conclude with one more quote, this time not from a statesman or an important
thinker but from Dickens’s Tiny Tim: God bless us, every one.

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