In the late 40’s and early 50’s a Venezuelan child’s first experience of America might have been being treated by an American doctor with American anti-biotics. Today a Venezuelan child’s first experience of Cuba is probably being treated by a Cuban doctor with Cuban drugs….
In 1956 when Britain, France and Israel conspired to seize the Suez crisis from a Muslim nation it was an American president who gave them the curt order to stop. This was probably the capstone of US/Arab relations, which had probably been the friendliest of any of the great powers for well over a hundred years. Arabs saw America as a foe of colonliasm and as their friend.
John Edwards didn’t mention either of these facts in his speech, but it’s very clear that he gets it. When one reads the speech what one is struck by immediately is by how much good will there is in it, at how much Edwards is neither scared nor contemptuous of the rest of the world. The speech, with its careful words of reaching out to both allies and enemies; with its promise to make sure that every child in the world is educated (something that should be done not just with American money, but with American teachers in a way similiar to the Peace Corps), is the reasoned manifesto of a man who actually understands that while every nation has to have a military, it really is the last resort, and not the first and that military action is as likely to weaken you and make you enemies as it is to do anything good for you.
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I read the speech expecting to find reasons to quibble – to see language like “all options”, to see some token macho posturing. Instead what I found was a speech that takes a razor blade to the idea of a “war on terror” or of a “long war’ and surgically cuts them to ribbons.
The war on terror is a slogan designed only for politics, not a strategy to make America safe. It’s a bumper sticker, not a plan. It has damaged our alliances and weakened our standing in the world. As a political “frame,” it’s been used to justify everything from the Iraq War to Guantanamo to illegal spying on the American people. It’s even been used by this White House as a partisan weapon to bludgeon their political opponents. Whether by manipulating threat levels leading up to elections, or by deeming opponents “weak on terror,” they have shown no hesitation whatsoever about using fear to divide.
But the worst thing about this slogan is that it hasn’t worked. The so-called “war” has created even more terrorism””as we have seen so tragically in Iraq. The State Department itself recently released a study showing that worldwide terrorism has increased 25% in 2006, including a 40% surge in civilian fatalities.
By framing this as a “war,” we have walked right into the trap that terrorists have set””that we are engaged in some kind of clash of civilizations and a war against Islam.
The “war” metaphor has also failed because it exaggerates the role of only one instrument of American power””the military. This has occurred in part because the military is so effective at what it does. Yet if you think all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.
Edwards reaches back in his speech to the same place the warmongers do – World War II. But instead of talking about a great crusade, he remembers a man named Marshall – the man who created the Marshall plan and helped rebuild Europe, ensuring that America both had strong allies and good friends. The US, after World War II, was truly mighty, with over half the entire world’s industrial production. It didn’t have to be generous; it didn’t have to be kind – but it was, and in so doing it sowed the seeds for 50 years of American security and prosperity.
Edwards point is not that the swords should be beat into plowshares, or that a military isn’t needed. Indeed, he spends about half the speech giving quite specific details on what he will do rebuild the army, take care of soldiers and veterans and reformulate military strategy.
His point, rather, is that the military is only one part of America’s power, and that it is not suitable for all tasks. Unlike many others (such as Hilary) he explicitly rejects the idea of necessarily expanding the military “why, if it’s leaving Iraq, which it must” without first examinging “what do we need the military for?”
Edwards’ speech is perhaps the best I’ve read in foreign policy terms this electoral season, probably even more so than Richardson’s (for all that Richardson gave more specifics), because of the way it strikes right at the foundations of jingoism, fear and militarism in the US. It seeks to make the military just one tool for foreign affairs; it urges America to live up to her own ideals and it rejects the politics of terror which have been used not just to whip up Americans against Muslims, but against each other. Edwards isn’t just thinking about what will win (must offer more money to the military, Americans like that) but is thinking about what it takes to rebuild America’s influence in the world – hard influence, and soft influence.
This refusal to play into Republican frames; this refusal to pander in any way to the politics of fear that Republicans used to master America is exactly what the US needs. It’s time to stop saying the things one “ought” to say and to say the things that need to be said. In attacking the war on terror; in saying the “long war” is a lie; in promising outright to restore habeas corpus, end torture and close Guantanmo; and in promising to reach out to the world not with guns, but with aid and education, Edwards reaches back to the true spirit of the men who lead the war against the Reich – to use force only when you must, and to be fair and generous in your dealings with others.
That was the America that many, myself included, grew up loving.
Hopefully Edwards will stay true to this vision, and hopefully Americans will join with him in restoring America to its place as a beacon of freedom for all in the world to admire. Hopefully in the future we will again be able to say that while the US does ill (as do all great nations), it does much much more good.
Hopefully. In a sense, it’s really not up to Edwards. It’s up to Americans whether they respond to this or whether fear has made them into the sort of people who need a “strong man” to “protect them”.