First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Cynical vs. Idealistic
The people who run our foreign relations can be divided into two groups, the "realistic" and the "righteous."
The realistic are those who would have had us refuse to fight in Vietnam because the war couldn't be won and wasn't important for our national interest even if we won it.
The righteous are those who would have had us refuse to fight in Vietnam because, for one reason or another, the war was "morally wrong."
Or, to use a more recent example, both groups would be quick to tell us that the Gulf War back in '91 was fought over oil. The only difference is that the realistic would say that was a good thing, and the righteous would say it was deplorable.
Both camps are equally cynical and equally wrong about why and how America can and should go to war.
The realists sneer at idealism in foreign relations. They all think of themselves as pragmatists -- mini-Metternichs divvying up the world and carefully balancing powers. It's the realists who decided that we needed to leave Saddam in power in Iraq in '91 because he was the only counterbalance to the power of Iran.
Maybe they're right, but they make Americans ashamed of our country for the decisions made in our names. It was the realists who kept us from intervening in Bosnia or Rwanda until it was way too late to save any lives.
The righteous, however, are just as cynical. They have their eyes set on the public opinion polls. They know that Americans need to be the "good guys" in all our wars, and that Americans like to win. Therefore they are only in favor of wars that Americans can easily win, without losses, and in which we can appear noble.
Thus the invasion of Haiti, which was ludicrous by "realistic" standards, was a "righteous" war because it was easy and relatively safe, and it allowed the party in power to get a lot of political mileage out of it.
Lest you think only Democrats indulge in this, remember Grenada and Panama.
And remember that until Bush Senior got the American people behind the Gulf War, the cynical "righteous" group was adamantly against it. As soon as the polls crossed over -- and especially after we won -- their "idealism" suddenly made them fans of the war.
In fact, they were so idealistic that they discovered that they retroactively supported the war all along.
Both teams try to justify their pet wars in language belonging to the other camp, of course. Thus the realists are always happy to explain why their wars are righteous, and the righteous are always ready to show why their wars are realistic.
The American people have been persuaded in the past by both arguments -- and they have been deceived by both groups, too.
Indeed, we knew we had been deceived about Bosnia and Rwanda, so that we were sickened by our failure to intervene while genocidal slaughter went on for days and days, weeks and weeks, with the full knowledge of our "realistic" government.
We knew, with some bitterness, that leaving Saddam in power only meant that more Americans would die later than would have died in the final push to remove him in '91.
Here's the secret that neither side understands.
Americans can only go to war for a cause.
And there are only two causes that have ever inspired us to fight:
1. To protect our shores and our people by preventing an enemy from having the power to strike at us a second time, and
2. To bring the blessings of the American way of life to people who are afflicted with evil and oppressive governments.
Any government that doesn't act boldly for Cause 1 is not going to have the support of the people for long. "Remember the Alamo!" "Remember the Maine!" "Remember Pearl Harbor!" -- those rallying cries worked because we understand that we must fight to protect our people.
It's Cause 2 that our governments just don't seem to understand anymore.
We really will fight a war to end all wars -- or a war that makes the world safe for democracy.
We would never have fought in World War I in order to get the result that came from Versailles.
Nor would we have fought very happily in World War II if we had known what would be handed to Stalin at Yalta.
They keep baiting us with idealism and then switching to realism.
But it never works. Both cynical groups end up failing, forcing us to fight needless wars to recover the same ground.
They sneer at the American people's insistence on being the good guys even as they exploit it for their own political advantage.
But the fact is, the only wars America can actually win -- and that stay won -- are the ones we fight in order to share our American ideals with oppressed peoples in other lands.
We don't pick the fight, usually, but when the other guy picks a fight with us, we hate to quite fighting until we have peeled away the oppressive leadership of the enemy countries and put power in the hands of those who will treat their people kindly and responsively.
And when we find out that American blood has been shed only to leave oppressive governments in place, we always feel cheated.
Our public intellectual class -- which consists mostly of dimwits with an elevated vocabulary -- sneers at the idea of "American ideals."
What right do we have to impose our system on other nations? They have their own systems, thank you very much, and to impose our culture on theirs is mere cultural imperialism.
You hear that sort of thing at every big international conference -- on the environment, on land mines, on every blessed issue you can think of. "Our people don't want your democracy!" -- cry the representatives of oppressive governments that know they would lose power if their people ever got anything like our system of government.
The thing is, we know our ideals work. Our system is able to hold together immigrants from every nation, speaking every language. Our system is able to foster invention, innovation, variety, creativity, criticism, and can tolerate enormous errors without falling apart. Our system is remarkably free of corruption, and responds to endemic unfairness by adjusting the laws -- later if not sooner. Our system responds to the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities. Our system allows people to choose their own religion, their own career, their own social class, their own dwelling place.
Of course, there are those who would say, "But that's not our system alone -- all of western Europe has governments like that! Besides, all those ideas came from European philosophers and politicians!"
The answer is that every one of those nations, except England, has governments like that because of us. (England earned its own, but we helped it survive.) Once we showed that it could work, citizens of other nations became increasingly ungovernable until they got the same rights as Americans.
And nobody knew those European philosophers were right until we showed how their ideals could be put into practice in a real place, with real people.
There is no group of human beings who would not be happier with a system of government that shared our ideals.
And we believe in those ideals to such a degree that we would fight -- and have fought on many a battlefield -- for no other cause than to help others obtain what we have.
It's a horrible mistake when our cynical leaders promise us Cause 2 -- and then reveal, when the war is over, that they were only faking to win our support during the war.
Because eventually we'll become cynical, not about our ideals, but about our governments. Indeed, it may even occur to us that it's been a long time since we've had a truly American foreign policy, that acted abroad for reasons that make moral sense to Americans.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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