Addressing the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, President Bush announced that he plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, fostering the ire of many people across the country. This comes amid the fruitless congressional debates on a nonbinding resolution that would rebuke the impending troop surge in Iraq. It seems liberals, but also Americans in general, have become gun-shy about sending any more troops around the world.
The understandable liberal hesitation to dispatch troops to quell international crises is a reversal of the familiar adage that “Democrats want a small army and send it everywhere while Republicans want a large army and send it nowhere.” Fans of “The West Wing” will recognize the saying from a 2003 episode, but the expression actually emanated in one form or another from the foreign policy of the Clinton administration during the early 1990s.
The Democratic one-time penchant for sending troops “everywhere” was centered on the American protocol of ending genocide around the world. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we solely held the title of superpower and therefore took on the responsibility of international policeman, walking a global beat to suppress injustice. It was a role Americans gladly adopted, harkening back to a self-image that has us saving the day since the Second World War. We were the world’s supercop, holstering the greatest army in history and flashing the badge of our own moral authority.
The Clinton administration carried out this romantic ideal and committed American forces to calm conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti. This mantle of world protector was even the reasoning behind the First Gulf War. We had to rescue defenseless Kuwait from the villainous Saddam Hussein, who unleashed genocide even against his own people. In 1991, we made it clear to the world that invading another country simply to enhance your stock of oil reserves was against the rules.
Things have changed.
Over the past six years, the neoconservative agenda has reversed trends, and Republicans are now the ones calling for massive global troop deployment. However, we are no longer engaging in police actions but instead deliberately and unabashedly using our military influence to pursue American international dominance. As the progenitors of The Project for a New American Century expressed in their 1997 statement of principles, America should use its military might “to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.” Whether we choose to admit it or not, this is the current U.S. foreign policy doctrine.
Although the altruism of our past military actions may always have been questioned, at least we had some semblance of principle behind them. Today, such ideological refuge is gone.
So can we still be considered the world’s policeman? When a cop uses his influence to pursue selfish interests, he is no longer a servant of the greater good, but merely another thug on the street.
We have lost our global moral authority, exposing a crack in our thin (red, white and) blue line. The United Nations considers our invasion of Iraq illegal. Thirteen CIA agents cannot set foot in Europe because they face indictment by prosecutors for the kidnap and torture of a Lebanese-born German citizen. And just last Friday, an Italian judge ordered that 26 Americans, many of them CIA agents, stand trial for the seizure and alleged four-year torture of an Egyptian man.
How can we police crimes worldwide when we’re seen as criminals ourselves?
The Bush administration has orchestrated the slippery transition from global protector to global perpetrator so slowly that many of us haven’t noticed. After Sept. 11, a strange mixture of vengeance and self-preservation fueled our invasion of Afghanistan. But in addition, the invasion was palatable because the Taliban regime was described as murderous and genocidal, an affront to humankind.
The invasion of Iraq is markedly different because it was justified primarily out of self-defense – making our lack of concern toward more dangerous global threats seem all the more suspicious. Only after this reasoning became tragically transparent did the narrative about spreading democracy and freedom in Iraq enter the argument.
I criticize not because I disagree with American ideals but because I feel they’ve been forgotten, and I am ashamed at how our international beacon has been doused. Sure Congress probably has better things to do with its time and, maybe a resolution will do little to restore our credibility abroad. But I hope that we at least pay heed to the message. Otherwise they will simply be empty words, much like a corrupt cop pledging to serve and protect.
Sam Butler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org