Richard Cohen, National Interests, and the Ethical Duties of the US to the World

There used to be no columnist who infuriated me more consistently than Richard Cohen. Those were the hazy, golden days before I discovered E.J. Dionne, Paul Krugman and Harold Mayerson, however, whose rigid ideology virtually precludes objective analysis. Cohen isn’t biased, he’s just wrong more often than not. But he is also capable of bursts of moral and ethical clarity. Today was an example, as he took on the isolationist voices on the left and the right that make up a large component, if not the majority, of our elected leadership today.

Cohen begins by recounting a section from  Erik Larson ‘s book,“In the Garden of the Beasts,” about how the American foreign policy establishment in the Thirties resisted efforts by William Dodd, then ambassador to Germany, to protest the Hitler government’s increasing persecution of Jews. Humanity, and the U.S., paid a steep price for its inward-turning perspective after World War I, as we abdicated our traditional role as defender of liberty, freedom, democracy and human rights on the world stage.

Now the same theme of putting “national interests first” is rampant again, as Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and others declare that the United States should only engage in “wars of necessity,” meaning only when the nation itself is attacked, and not wars of choice. This philosophy has already crept into American foreign policy, both because of the traditional Democratic aversion to committing U.S. military power abroad, and the more prosaic reason that we can’t afford it….not if we are going to spend the bulk of the nation’s budget on steadily inflating entitlements.

This is why Syria’s Assad has been allowed to slaughter thousands of his people as the U.S. mouths empty admonishments, and why the Libyan intervention was slow, late, and cheap, also costing innocent lives. It is why Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons as America discusses sanctions.

“Libya under Moammar Gaddafi was not Germany under Adolf Hitler,” writes Cohen. “But lives were at stake, mass murder was threatened and the man doing the threatening was capable of unspeakable acts of terrorism. Did any of this have anything to do with our vital national interests? Not really. But we had the wherewithal to avert the killing. That gave us the moral obligation to do so.”

“U.S. policymakers now grappling with the question of America’s role in the world ought to look to the past as well as the future,” he continues. “We were once an uncaring nation, not selfish by any means, but tone-deaf to the cries of victims elsewhere. We defined our national interests narrowly and dismissed morality as the preoccupation of amateurs or special-interest pleaders.”

We are headed there again, though Cohen stops short of saying so, and he refuses to note the main reason why: the current leadership in both parties finds it more politically expedient to gut the military than to make responsible cost adjustments to the social programs gradually ruining the economy and restraining options for the future. A world with a weak and isolated America will be a crueler and more dangerous world, and a United States unable and unwilling to confront aggressive despots will not be the United States its founding ideals demand.

Cohen is clear, logical and right: history has taught this lesson well. I hope we haven’t forgotten it.

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