You can get to the core of the debate about America’s place in the world through one simple letter from a reader of the NY Times. The reader objects to a column by writer Ross Douthat in which Douthat argued against U. S. involvement in Libya. Here’s part of what the reader wrote:
In all the thousands of words Douthat has written arguing against the establishment of a no-fly zone, never does he attempt to demonstrate that he understands the difference between right and wrong. That understanding is all that was necessary to understand the dictates of morality when it came to the question of whether or not the United States should have used its overwhelming military capabilities to support the popular uprising of the people of Libya against the dictator and terrorist Gaddafi.
. . .
People like Douthat are ensuring that Libya will soon be again in the hands of an insane terrorist and populated universally by people who deeply hate America.
Note the reader’s core assumptions. Apparently, America’s foreign policy and military intervention should be based on “the difference between right and wrong.” If we are uncertain as to where we should focus our military might, we should consult “the dictates of morality.” Above all, we should intervene to keep “insane terrorists” from establishing havens for “people who hate America.” (You mean, like Paris and Berlin during the Bush years? Joke! Joke! )
The reader goes on to heap scorn on the idea that America should act only in its own clear self-interest. The full letter is here. (Scroll down to #9).
The America of this reader’s desire–and I think he/she speaks for millions–would be more of a crusading white knight of the realm than a nation with a clear sense of its duties, interests and limitations.
At the risk of seeming irreverent, this reader’s view of America recalls a superhero I loved as a child–Green Lantern. Whenever GL had to recharge his supercool power ring, he had to recite this oath:
In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let them who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power: Green Lantern’s light.
Note the breadth of this oath: “No evil shall escape my sight.” None. Not a bit. If you are evil, we’re coming, baby.
Can or should America be the Green Lantern of the world? Is it our duty to scour the globe for evil dictators and thugs who make life hell for the innocent? If so, we better forget the idea of cutting military spending; instead, we better double or triple it, and right after that institute a draft for all healthy men and women between 18 and 45. And if Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone aren’t busy, maybe they can run the Pentagon. No evil ever escaped their sight, either.
As a kid, I loved Green Lantern because he could always fix things. All the bad guys, from the street thugs to the aliens, feared him. And in some corner of my heart I agree with that New York Times reader. When the weak and the innocent are oppressed, some champion should come to their aid. Somebody should bring justice. (I think we’re touching on the roots of religion here.)
This debate will go on as the battlegrounds shift from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya to–Saudi Arabia? Iran? Green Lantern’s oath represents one possible (and probably disastrous) course for America. John Quincy Adams’ words represent another:
“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”