Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely baby daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.
Dinesh D' Souza, an immigrant from India who is now a U.S. citizen, is author of the New York Times best-seller What’s So Great About America. A few years ago, he wrote a paper for the Heritage Foundation called What’s Great About America. For seven days, I'm posting, one each day, the qualities D'Souza listed in his paper. Here's #6.
Ideals and Interests
America has the kindest, gentlest foreign policy of any great power in world history. America’s enemies are likely to respond to this notion with sputtering outrage. Their view is that America’s influence has been, and continues to be, deeply destructive and wicked. Many European, Islamic, and Third World critics—as well as many American leftists—make the point that the United States uses the comforting language of morality while operating according to the ruthless norms of power politics. To these critics, America talks about democracy and human rights while supporting ruthless dictatorships around the world. In the 1980s, for example, the U.S. supported Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Today, America is allied with unelected regimes in the Muslim world such as Pervez Musharaff in Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the critics charge that America’s actions abroad, such as in the Gulf War and Iraq, were not motivated by noble humanitarian ideals but by the crass desire to guarantee American access to oil.
These charges contain an element of truth. In his book White House Years, Henry Kissinger says that America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. It is indeed true that American foreign policy seeks to protect America’s self-interest, but what is wrong with this? All it means is that the American people have empowered their government to act on their behalf against their adversaries. They have not asked their government to remain neutral when their interests and, say, the interests of the Ethiopians come in conflict. It is unreasonable to ask a nation to ignore its own interests, because that is tantamount to asking a nation to ignore the welfare of its own people. Asked why he once supported the Taliban regime and then joined the American effort to oust it, General Musharaff of Pakistan coolly replied, “Because our national interest has changed.” When he said this, nobody thought to ask any further questions.
Critics of U.S. foreign policy judge it by a standard applied to no one else. They denounce America for protecting its self-interest while expecting other countries to protect theirs. Americans need not apologize for their country acting abroad in a way that is good for them. Why should it act in any other way? Indeed, Americans can feel immensely proud about how often their country has served them well while simultaneously promoting noble ideals and the welfare of others. So, yes, America did fight the Gulf War partly to protect its access to oil, but also to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi invasion. American interests did not taint American ideals; just the opposite is true: The ideals dignified the interests.
But what about the United States backing Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern dictators such as Somoza, Pinochet, Marcos, and the Shah? It should be noted that, in each of these cases, the United States eventually turned against these dictatorial regimes and actively aided in its ouster. In Chile and the Philippines, the outcomes were favorable: The Pinochet and Marcos regimes were replaced by democratic governments that have so far endured. In Nicaragua and Iran, however, one form of tyranny promptly gave way to another. Somoza was replaced by the Sandinistas, who suspended civil liberties and established a Marxist-style dictatorship, and the Shah of Iran was replaced by a harsh theocracy presided over by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
These outcomes help to highlight a crucial principle of foreign policy: the principle of the lesser evil. It means that one should not pursue a thing that seems good if it is likely to result in something worse. A second implication of this doctrine is that one is usually justified in allying with a bad guy in order to oppose a regime that is even more terrible. The classic example of this was in World War II. The United States allied with a very bad man, Josef Stalin, in order to defeat someone who posed an even greater threat at the time: Adolf Hitler. Once the principle of the lesser evil is taken into account, many of America’s alliances with tin-pot dictators become defensible. America allied with these regimes to win the Cold War. If one accepts what is today almost a universal consensus—that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire”—then the United States was right to attach more importance to the fact that Marcos and Pinochet were reliably anti-Soviet than to the fact that they were autocratic thugs.
None of this is to excuse the blunders and mistakes that have characterized U.S. foreign policy over the decades. Unlike the old colonial powers—the British and the French—the Americans seem to have little aptitude for the nuances of international politics. Part of the problem is America’s astonishing ignorance of the rest of the world. About this, the critics of the United States are correct. They have also played a constructive role in exposing America’s misdoings. Here each person can develop his own list: longstanding U.S. support for a Latin American despot, or the unjust internment of the Japanese–Americans during World War II, or America’s reluctance to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime. There is ongoing debate over whether the United States was right to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
However one feels about these cases, let us concede to the critics that America is not always in the right. What the critics completely ignore, however, is the other side of the ledger. Twice in the 20th century, the United States saved the world: first from the Nazi threat, then from Soviet totalitarianism. After destroying Germany and Japan in World War II, America proceeded to rebuild both nations, and today they are close allies. Now the United States is helping Afghanistan and Iraq on the path to political stability and economic development. (What this tells us is that North Vietnam’s misfortune was to win the war against the United States. If it had lost, it wouldn’t be the impoverished country it is now, because America would have helped to rebuild it and to modernize it.)
Consider, too, how magnanimous the United States has been to the former Soviet Union since the Cold War. And even though the United States does not have a serious military rival in the world today, it has not acted in the manner of regimes that have historically occupied this enviable position. For the most part, America is an abstaining superpower: it shows no interest in conquering and subjugating the rest of the world. (Imagine how the Soviets would have acted if they had won the Cold War.) On occasion, the U.S. intervenes to overthrow a tyrannical regime or to halt massive human rights abuses in another country, but it never stays to rule that country. In Grenada and Haiti and Bosnia, the United States got in and then got out.
Moreover, when America does get into a war, it is supremely careful to avoid targeting civilians and to minimize collateral damage. During the military campaign against the Taliban, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with theologians to make sure that America’s actions were in strict conformity with “just war” principles; and even as America bombed the Taliban’s infrastructure and hideouts, its planes dropped rations of food to avert hardship and starvation on the part of Afghan civilians. What other country does these things?
Jeane Kirkpatrick once said, “Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is.” The reason that many Americans don’t feel this way is because they judge themselves by a higher standard than anyone else. Americans are a self-scrutinizing people: Even when they have acted well in a given situation, they are always willing to examine whether they could have acted better. At some subliminal level, everybody knows this. Thus, if the Chinese, the Arabs, or the sub-Saharan Africans slaughter 10,000 of their own people, the world utters a collective sigh and resumes its normal business. We sadly expect the Chinese, the Arabs, and the sub-Saharan Africans to do these things. By contrast, if America, in the middle of a war, accidentally bombs a school or a hospital and kills 200 civilians, there is an immediate uproar followed by an investigation. What all this demonstrates, of course, is the evident moral superiority of American foreign policy.