- - Sunday, March 11, 2012


A perennial American foreign policy debate sets “realism” against “idealism,” national interest versus morality. The dichotomy is often overstated. The two currents divide and merge incessantly in the flow of implementing any concrete overseas policy or tactic.

American statesmen have argued - contemporary politicians no less than the Founding Fathers - that, in the absence of the common ground of race, ethnicity and the shared history of America’s largely European forebears, the essence of the republic is ideological. Most Americans, even if innocent of the larger argument, still identify themselves as belonging to a society based on freedom of the individual largely lodged in British traditions of common law. But that belief is joined in a larger Judeo-Christian ethos of “the shining city on the hill,” a perceived model of moral rectitude with an accompanying missionary zeal to share it with the rest of the world. And that is where belief intersects with U.S. foreign policy.

Where American foreign initiatives have been successful, the moral concept has been an integral part of what purported to be hard-nosed, even cynical “realism” (what today has come to be called “soft power”), especially when Washington successfully led coalitions, first against Nazism and then against communism. For U.S. leadership rested not only on economic strength, first in rebuilding Europe and Japan and then aiding the so-called “developing” world, but on its force as a model for resolving domestic conflict with justice in a peaceful (the Civil War excepted) if not always orderly fashion.

President Obama has specifically rejected this “American exceptionalism.” But despite his denigration of past U.S. initiatives, his preference for “leading from behind” and the carping by the usual foreign suspects of America’s “real intentions,” the world still looks to Washington for leadership. But Americans are now weary: Two Mideast wars seem to be ending inconclusively despite the expenditure - by U.S. standards - of too much blood and extravagant riches.

Nevertheless, even now, while public attention is diverted to a crippled economy and the quadrennial, sometimes silly, season of choosing new leadership, the U.S. is asked to take on new overseas burdens. But just as 9/11, with its unprecedented attack on the American homeland (far more portentous in its strategic implications perhaps than Pearl Harbor), forever changed perceptions of the threat from abroad, the digital revolution’s effects on mass communications, public opinion and the U.S. political system are having a profound impact. The Balkan wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s were precursors in their appeals for Washington’s adjudication when the Europeans, initially, looked the other way at problems on their doorstep. A generation later in another century, Washington’s dilemma has not gone away, but perhaps grows.

Quite suddenly, there is a dramatic case in point: If you have not seen the 28-minute video “Kony 2012,” you probably will soon. Whatever its merits - and it is under attack as naive even from those who share its sponsors’ concerns in Uganda and elsewhere - its impact already has mobilized the U.S. government into action. After a quarter-century of inaction, the Obama administration has sent a 100-member military detachment to try to help Ugandans and other Central African governments capture and bring to justice one of the world’s greatest monsters, Joseph Kony, and his misbegotten Lord’s Resistance Army. For almost three decades, this personification of evil has kidnapped and trained thousands of children in mass murder, seemingly without any aim other than inflicting terror and exerting his personal power. The filmmakers, reversing the old methodology, are now trying to reinforce their successful government lobbying by mobilizing public opinion.

The American military detachment’s task is daunting, for Kony has retreated into the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” As in so many guerrilla conflicts, there is considerable possibility that the conflict will escalate. It is not that the U.S. has not been down this road before. But in this instance, no real argument has been made for U.S. “national interest” - i.e., “realism” - but only an overwhelming case for a humanitarian cause for which American expertise is critical.

U.S. military assistance is turning up elsewhere in volatile Africa; for example, a military training group set up recently in Mali to help preserve another fragile post-colonial state from disintegration. There will be other requests, certainly.

And so a new round in the debate on realism versus idealism begins.

Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.

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