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WORLD FOCUS: The roots of America’s missionary zeal

September 7, 2011
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” goes the old saying. This axiom seems to be an apt metaphor for U.S. policy toward Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through history, American foreign policy was driven by two sets of principles. One is the belief in manifest destiny, fueled by missionary zeal that is aimed to spread democracy around the world. The other guiding principle is based on hardnosed pragmatism, with the goal of promoting and safeguarding the national interest.

The seeds of that missionary zeal were planted in Jamestown, Va. The first representative assembly in the New World convened in Jamestown in 1619. Then the General Assembly met “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia which would provide just laws for happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”

America’s determination to spread democracy around the world could also be traced to Williamsburg. The decisive Revolutionary War victory in 1781 at Yorktown, brought about the implementation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, documents containing ideas first articulated by Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers.

There seems to be a need for a historical retrospective to understand why the United States found itself in the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. President John F. Kennedy, was credited with coining the phrase, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

Indeed, there is no lack of finger-pointing and shifting the blame to others for the mess Iraq and Afghanistan has become. But it would be, as Prince Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister once famously said, “more than a sin, it would be a mistake,” if we learn the wrong lessons from those conflicts.

In hindsight, we now all know that those WMD in Iraq didn’t exist. But it was not only the Bush administration that believed that Iraq had and was working on developing WMD that it may share with terrorist organizations. Most of the world’s intelligence services, including the British, French, Russians, Egyptian and Israel’s agreed with this assessment. There was also the fear that the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 war, are eroding and the huge revenues from oil export would enable Iraq to rebuild its military capabilities. And as a result, Iraq would pose a serious threat to the free flow of oil, from the Middle East.

But in 1998, while serving as chief of the Central Command, overseeing the enforcement of the “no-fly” zones in Iraq, Gen. Anthony Zinni, warned against launching a war because “a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq, which could happen if this isn’t done carefully, is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam Hussein is now.”

In fact, Zinni, the four-star Marine general, now retired, managed to keep Saddam in a “box” with a U.S. military force under his command, numbering less than 25,000.

Yet, in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a legitimate concern that if the Iraqi regime under Saddam were left in place, the Middle East would remain a powder-keg and turn into a breeding ground for terrorist. Thus, trying to eliminate this threat seemed to be in accordance with America’s national interest, and part of a pragmatic approach to solving the problem.

Indeed, U.S. forces, numbering fewer that 150,000 defeated Saddam’s much larger army in mere 21 days. The fatal error the Bush administration made was to mismanage the occupation of Iraq. It never had enough “boots” on the ground to prevent lawlessness, the creation of an insurgency and finally total chaos in Baghdad.

The other component of our policy toward Iraq was the belief that liberating that country from a tyrannical regime and turning it into democracy offered the best solution to the problems the West faced in the Middle East. This policy was fueled by America’s missionary zeal to spread democracy around.

Most Americans seem to be disillusioned with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and are deeply skeptical of the utility of our effort to bring democracy to the Middle East. Recent public opinion pools, however, indicate that the majority of Americans are not clamoring for a policy that would diminish our country’s role in the world or make it turn inward, as was the case following the Vietnam War.

The reason for this national attitude is explained clearly in a new book “Dangerous Nation,” by Robert Kagan. He is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and an influential foreign policy expert.

Kagan provides historical proof that, in spite of occasional flare-ups of isolationist sentiment, “Americans have been increasing their global power and influence steadily for the past four centuries.”

He contends that even before the birth of the nation, Americans believed they were destined for global leadership. Underlying their ambitions was a set of ideas and ideals about the world and human nature. “The Declaration of Independence was the document,” Kagan argues, “that firmly established the American conviction that the inalienable rights of all mankind transcended territorial borders and blood ties.”

It may be so, but as Karen Hughes, the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, pointed out that in spite of its good intentions, America faces a hostile world.

“What we’re up against essentially is a death cult,” she was quoted saying in a Parade magazine interview. “By those whose say, death to all who disagree with us. We’ve got to aggressively challenge that.”

It may be futile to expect that a war-torn country, such as Iraq or Afghanistan would become a showpiece of democracy in the Middle East. But no doubt, on the long-run, America would remain true to its credo and serve as a vanguard of progress and democracy.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.


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