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Uncertainty and U.S. Foreign Policy

Has "patriotic correctness" gone too far in the U.S. Democratic Presidential campaign?

May 7, 2003

Has "patriotic correctness" gone too far in the U.S. Democratic Presidential campaign?

The recent verbal sparring between the campaigns of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean was the first meaningful exchange of fire in the pre-primary period.

If nothing else, it highlighted that the thought police of "patriotic correctness" are everywhere — and sometimes where you least expect it.

In fact, the animosity among the nine Democratic candidates reached such a decibel level in the first debate on May 3, 2003 that the usually quite combative Al Sharpton had to intervene in the unlikely role as peacemaker.

It all began on April 28, 2003, when Mr. Dean remarked upon the historical dimensions of foreign and national security policy. He noted that, in making policy decisions, one should not automatically assume that U.S. military supremacy will last forever.

It was astonishing that the Kerry campaign felt the immediate urge to respond to this statement, by nearly equating it with treason — and by questioning the suitability of the former governor as a potential commander-in-chief.

Astonishing, because even by taking Governor Dean's comment out-of-context (a common, yet regrettable practice in hard-nosed campaigning), most reasonable observers — and yes this includes Republicans — would see nothing controversial about Mr. Dean's remarks.

Astonishing, too, because in a debate of nine contestants of the political opposition, the U.S. electorate is entitled to more than just an uttering of national "group think" on any given issue.

But let's take a closer look at Mr. Dean's comments. He merely cautioned that current U.S. policymakers should take into account that there might be a time in the future when the United States is not in a position where it can dismiss the concerns of other countries out of hand.

Anybody who has a least bit of historic perspective would have to agree with that view. Throughout the course of human history, empires have come and gone — the Roman and British empires among them.

Even in our own lifetime, we have witnessed a dramatic change of the world's balance-of-power. We moved from a system of two superpowers to just one, when the Communist house of cards suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s.

Any forward-looking, wise foreign policy requires a pragmatic understanding of the historical implications of one's decisions.

How else can we explain that people are still perishing every day in the Israel/Palestine conflict — more than 50 years after the foundation of the state of Israel?

How else can we comprehend that the Northern Ireland question remains unresolved — more than 40 years after the re-emergence of the IRA?

How else can we come to terms with the continued division of Cyprus — nearly 30 years after the Turkish invasion of the island?

This does not even address the grievances of many developing nations that still suffer from the impact of policy decisions made by their colonial masters.

Those colonial powers have long since been demoted to second or third-tier power-status in this dynamic world. But their erstwhile policies still have lingering effects today.

And so, it seems quite clear that in history all that's certain is uncertainty. Once this is recognized, the U.S. policy debate might be oriented toward a long-term perspective — rather than toward acting rashly by misapplying current positions of strength.

Such perspective helps to plan for unexpected contingencies — and it does not only apply to the way countries should be run.

Even individuals – if they are responsible — try to provision for times when things aren't going so well. A thoughtful head of a family maintains a healthy rainy day fund.

All of that is why it does not speak for John Kerry as a leader that he would attack an opponent for cautioning that the United States not become giddy with its own power. History has proven repeatedly that empires do not last forever.

And it is simply irresponsible for Senator Kerry to want to choke off debate on such an important issue for short-term political gain — and to succumb to a mistaken sense of patriotic correctness.

Don't get me wrong. This is not an endorsement of one candidate's set of policies over another — but it is an endorsement of the process in which we arrive at our decisions.