- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006


By James R. Holmes

Potomac Books, $29.95, 327 pages


It is most appropriate and timely to ask what should be the major considerations for American diplomatic and military intervention. To examine this question, James R. Holmes, a veteran of Desert Storm and now a senior research associate at the University of Georgia, decided to look back not at Woodrow Wilson, the missionary advocate of world democracy, but at the more colorful and less consequential presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

Mr. Holmes takes an interesting approach to the question by stressing the continuity of TR’s views and behavior from his years as police commissioner in New York City to president of the United States. Roosevelt believed that government had to abandon its conservative pro-business attitude and adopt an activist national presence that would assert the public interest above all else. As an assemblyman and as a governor in New York state, he aligned himself with the forces of reform and on the national level almost single-handedly changed the character of the Republican party, forcing the Democrats to follow suit.

To promote an activist government, TR insisted on redefining the “police power” of the state. For centuries, jurists had agreed that liberties could be controlled for some social good, especially citizens’ health and safety. That premise is the very philosophical basis for having a government in human affairs, here or anywhere. The question of course is how much police power or regulation is desirable.

Mr. Holmes insists that Roosevelt expanded the idea to include an international police authority that allowed great powers, including the then newly assertive United States, to control contiguous areas of the world. In his view, great powers are supposed to rule as a sort of trustee the regions close to them, promoting regional stability and furthering the eventual establishment of responsible native civil government.

Mr. Holmes warns that the United States should be guided by idealist, humanistic concerns and not engage in exploitation or imperialism. But Roosevelt’s high-handed treatment in the Panama-Columbia war and his prolonged control of the Philippines show that even a thoughtful executive such as he could easily cross the line. And with TR’s blatant racism it is easier to see him blur that boundary by insisting that America’s activism was really an example of Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” a hollow justification for rule by Caucasians of other races in the name of the latter’s own good.

In an international system where the problems of smaller states can lead to world instability, genocide, or gross abuses of internal justice and decency, what can larger states do? TR could not count on an international organization to police the world, even though the Western powers did come together to save their embassies in China. He had no League of Nations to resort to; we have the United Nations but it often does not function well except to the benefit of its own bureaucrats.

If a great power does intervene, it is the only judge of its actions, no matter how misguided; might makes right. Woe be to smaller nations living near a great power. In that same vein, Woodrow Wilson’s commitment was to spread both self-determination and democracy, even if a nation did not wish to follow our way of life.

Although its prose is occasionally dense, Mr. Holmes’ book is tightly written and is a rather comprehensive and somewhat original contribution to our understanding of the Roosevelt years.

He makes us face the terrible dilemmas that we know today: stateless terrorism, unstable regimes, dictatorial and harshly ideological nations, moribund and corrupt ruling classes, and America’s new aggressive eagerness to nation building.

Should we be involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, South Korea, Iran … and if not what about genocide in Dafur and before that the savageries in Somalia? Can we support international tribunals such as Nuremberg, and yet not extend their jurisdiction to our own troops because we fear the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of some European jurists? Can we support the extension of essential voting rights to nations that will inevitably elect anti-American and terrorist governments? United States foreign policy vacillates between the hard calculations of realpolitik and an addiction to creating by force democracies across the globe.

As we can see now, we are probably close to running out of money, running out of volunteer troops and, most importantly, running out of patience. The United States cannot go it alone any longer, but our allies are too timid, too weary, and too divided by their own national ethnic divisions to provide much international leadership. At least in facing his problems, TR tried to re-conceptualize his view of the international system. Perhaps we need to be bold enough to do the same.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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