Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Americans Still Favor Global Intervention -- FDR-Style

Sep 17, 2013

Americans Still Favor Global Intervention -- FDR-Style

tags: FDR

If you want to understand the fracas over Syrian chemical weapons as a chapter in American history, I'd suggest starting with these words: "For nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. ... Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. ... Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. ... Now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. ... We do what we say." 

That's a pastiche from Barack Obama's two major speeches on Syria (August 31 and September 10). The message was coded, but easy enough to decipher: America still has more of a commitment than any other nation to enforce the rules of the international order, because we built that order. The rules we made are the "red line" that Syria crossed. Now Syria must be punished, and only the U.S. can do the punishing -- indeed must do the punishing, if only to prove that the U.S. is still a credible enforcer.

I don't suggest that this is a key to deciphering Obama's true motives. No one can read his mind to ferret out his motives. Perhaps even Obama himself isn't really sure of his true motives.

But if you want to put Obama's initial eagerness to attack Syria, and his later step back from the brink, in the context of American history, these words from his speeches are the key -- especially his reference to "the ashes of world war," obviously meaning World War II.

When the Germans conquered most of continental Europe in 1940 and raised fears of an imminent attack on Britain, Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a skillful campaign to persuade Americans to pay for a huge increase in military weaponry and send as much as needed to the British to defend themselves. But, FDR promised, U.S. troops would never go to Europe or anywhere else in the world. The U.S. could help win this war without risking a drop of American blood; in today's jargon, he promised "no boots on the ground." Of course the bombing of Pearl Harbor ended that vision of bloodless victory.

But by 1942 FDR was telling people (quite privately) about his utopian postwar vision for lasting peace on earth. The story was quite simple: Nations go to war only if they have the weapons to do it. Take away their weapons, and -- presto! -- no more war. Eternal peace would let the United States go on freely trading with, and profiting from, every nation on earth forever.

Of course someone had to be strong enough to take away all those weapons and make sure no one else could obtain new ones. So four nations would be exempt from the command to disarm. The U.S., Britain, Russia, and China would be the world's "four policemen," as FDR called them, each enforcing the rules in their own part of the world.

However "by 1944 Roosevelt's musings about the four world policemen had faded into the background," as Martin Sherwin wrote in A World Destroyed, his classic history of how the atomic bomb reshaped world diplomacy in the 1940s. FDR was getting encouraging reports from the Manhattan Project and growing optimistic that the United States would have soon have an atomic bomb.

The fateful decision he made was to share the bomb and knowledge of how to make it only with the Britain and not with any other nation -- including, most importantly, Russia. FDR was misled into thinking that the U.S. and Britain could keep an atomic monopoly for two decades or more. So, he assumed, there would actually be only two policemen.

Even though Roosevelt hoped for postwar cooperation with the Russians, "the underlying idea" of his original plan, as Sherwin wrote, "the concept of guaranteeing world peace by the amassing of overwhelming military power, remained a prominent feature of his postwar plans." And not a drop of American blood would ever have to be shed.

After Roosevelt's death, the Truman administration made that concept the most prominent feature of America's postwar plan -- the international order that, as Obama said, the U.S. built out of the ashes of world war.

Harry Truman came increasingly under the sway of cold war hawks, who turned back all efforts to cooperate with the Russians on anything related to the bomb. Our national commitment -- the responsibility we awarded ourselves in 1945 -- was to enforce the new world order and keep the peace by ourselves, brandishing the bomb (or as Truman called it "the hammer").

Of course the Soviet Union was not nearly as intimidated by that "hammer" as Truman and his cold warriors hoped. It took over 40 years to persuade the Soviets to stop competing for the title of global enforcer.

But for more than twenty years now the United States has held undisputed claim to the title of the world's sole indispensable superpower. And, as in the cold war era, Americans still generally justify that claim with a simple moral tale of good (that's us) against evil (that's whomever we happen to be opposing at the moment).

Chemical Weapons and WMDs

Back in the 1940s, with all attention focused on the atomic bomb, chemical and biological weapons didn't get much public attention. Only in recent years were they lumped together with nuclear weapons under the umbrella term "WMDs." But the principle that prevailed in U.S. foreign policymaking circles remained the same: We alone would enforce the rules and red lines of the international game, because we alone would have the power to do it.

The U.S. has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international agreement calling on signatories to destroy their stocks of chemical weapons, and U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles are being destroyed (though much more slowly than the Convention called for; the U.S. claims it will finish the job only 11 years behind schedule).

At the same time, though, U.S. leaders have emphasized a kind of equivalence between chemical and nuclear weapons. They have often said that their response to any chemical attack would be "devastating," with no weapons ruled out -- which implies, despite the calculated ambiguity, a clear threat of nuclear retaliation.

There's another obvious link between nuclear and chemical weapons. In American political culture, both are framed within the same dualistic narrative: Some WMDs are acceptable, some are unacceptable, and you damn well better know the difference, or else the enforcer will soon be at your doorstep.

How to know which is which? The enforcer will decide and then let you know, explaining it all with the familiar tale of good versus evil. And if your WMDs are unacceptable, the enforcer will fulfill his commitments and do what he has been saying he'd do for the past 70 years: punish you. After all, his credibility is on the (red) line.

That narrative goes back to the fateful decision Franklin Roosevelt made: a British atomic bomb would be acceptable. A Soviet atomic bomb would be unacceptable.

Today we see the same dualism played out around the world. Iran must be prevented, at all costs, from obtaining even one nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, its neighbors to the east (Pakistan and India) and not far to the west (Israel) are perfectly entitled to keep expanding their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. is perfectly entitled to keep who knows how many nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea. But North Korea is a dangerous, even monstrous, threat because it has a tiny handful.

The same dualistic principle applies to chemical weapons. When Syrians opposed to Bashar al-Assad stockpiled and very possibly used them, Washington uttered not a peep. Those WMDs are, apparently, acceptable. But if Assad did indeed use similar weapons himself, they are totally unacceptable and he must be punished.

Similarly, we are urged to be outraged that Assad refuses to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention; his very possession of the weapons is unacceptable. But we hear not a word about his most powerful regional rivals, Israel and Egypt, refusing to sign the same Convention. Their chemical weapons are, apparently, acceptable -- even if Egypt once actually used them in Yemen years ago.

Sometimes the very same chemical weapons can be transformed from one category to the other. It all depends on the context. Most famously, Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in the 1980s was acceptable to the United States. By 2003, that same event had become utterly unacceptable, offered as prime evidence that he must have WMDs, including the nuclear kind, and therefore must be destroyed.

The moral of the story is clear: The global policeman's responsibility is to decide which WMDs are unacceptable and then to punish those nations that use or even obtain them, because those nations are bad guys by definition (a definition marked "made in USA"). Every president since FDR has embraced that as a foundational mythic narrative of U.S. foreign policy.


Obama, having placed Assad's chemical weapons in the category of unacceptable, called the world to act out the venerable myth once again. Of course he didn't get quite the answer he expected.

His first ran in to trouble because Roosevelt's idea of the "four policemen" never really died. It was enshrined in the UN Security Council, in the form of the permanent members. (France was added as a fifth world cop, as a last minute afterthought, when the UN was created in 1945.)

To prove their status as the world's most powerful nations, all five were given veto power -- which is why Obama couldn't use the Security Council, the route he and everyone else would have preferred, to legitimize an attack on Syria. Global cop Russia was determined to veto it.

So Obama was forced to turn to the U.S. Congress for a stamp of approval. Congress is packed with Republicans who were eager to stick it to Obama any way they could. And on this issue they had t it easy, because they could say in all honesty that most of the voters back home were against an attack (even though most believe Assad did use chemical weapons against civilians). Plenty of Democrats got the same message from the voters, forcing them to choose between embarrassing their president and defying the will of the people, most of whom seemed uninterested in being global enforcers.

The public's reluctance to use military force in Syria has sent the pundits scurrying back to the FDR era -- this time to the years just before the U.S. entered World War II, where they found what seemed to be the obvious analogy: Once again, it seems, it's interventionists versus isolationists.

But the analogy is actually quite mistaken. All the evidence suggests that the U.S. public today is not at all loath to be involved in war around the world. It just depends on how the war is fought.

If it's fought with drones, even drones that kill American citizens, there is some public controversy, but not a whole lot. If it's fought with cyberspying, even cyberspying that scoops up millions of American's phone calls and emails, there's more controversy. But it's nothing nearly on the scale of the row over attacking Syrian.

And then there are the issues that arouse no public discussion at all: The massive U.S. arsenals of WMDs, and the smaller arsenals held by U.S. allies. (Of course, they are all "acceptable" WMDs, so what is there to discuss?); the fact that the U.S. military capacity, as a whole, is vastly larger than any other nation's; and the vast array of U.S. military bases around the world, ready to wield that capacity everywhere at a moment's notice.

In other words, the American public still accepts the vision that FDR used against the "isolationists," the same vision he later offered for world peace: the U.S. enforcing global order without risking American blood.

What the American public won't accept, right now, is the risk of shedding even a drop of American blood. After twelve gruesome and apparently (to most Americans) pointless years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans simply wouldn't believe the president's promise that no Americans would ever be sent to kill and die in Syria.

So the public rejection of Obama's call for intervention had nothing to do with pre-World War II "isolationism." It was, rather, a hearty endorsement of FDR's ideal method of interventionism (even making room for his idea of cooperating with the Russians). In effect, it was a message to Obama that the nation has too often strayed from FDR's plan; now it's time to get back on the track he first plotted out over seven decades ago.

Does that mean the global policeman must hang up his badge? It depends on the weapons the cop uses. As long as the policeman can enforce the law with no risk to himself, he can keep that badge pinned on proudly. But if he has to show up the old-fashioned way, in person with gun in hand, and shoot down the bad guys, then it seems the American version will have to hang up his badge -- at least for a while.

For how long? No one can say. As so many fictional policemen and sheriffs -- and Ronald Reagan and two presidents Bush -- have shown us, a seemingly retired cop can always be tempted to pick up his badge and gun and go out to the dusty streets again, if evil threatens in an ugly enough form. It's a story American audiences never seem to tire of. So I wouldn't write an obituary for the old-fashioned global cop just yet.

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