Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- September 28, 1994
by James Fallows

Anything More Than a Vision?

President Clinton's critics often say that his foreign policy lacks any central, guiding theme. Let's consider a more alarming possibility -- that it does have a theme, and it's the one laid out by the president's National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, in an important speech two weeks ago.

In his speech, at the Council of Foreign Relations, Mr. Lake said that today's world seems confusing to many Americans. Instead of having one familiar Soviet enemy to deal with, the U.S. must face dozens of emergencies, from Sarajevo to Port au Prince. Yet beneath this apparent tumult, he said, a single, fundamental struggle was taking shape.

On one side of this confrontation were values of "democracy, liberty, civility, pluralism" -- America's values, Mr. Lake said. On the other side were not simply local aggressors, like Saddam Hussein, but a full roster of malefactors, including, and I quote: "extreme nationalists and tribalists, terrorists, organized criminals, coup plotters, rogue states, and all those who would return newly freed societies to the intolerant ways of the past." Fighting such evils world-wide, Mr. Lake concluded, would be America's post Cold War role.

Such a list of challenges is inspiring, but far from resolving questions it plunges us back into the dilemma this nation has faced since its start. Because the United States was founded on universal theories of liberty, it has always felt some stake in fighting tyranny in other lands. But because America's power has never been limitless, the country has always decided that some tyranny, somewhere, must be ignored. The eternal question has been how and where to draw that line.

Until World War I, the U.S. solved this problem mainly by ignoring events any farther away than the Caribbean. During the Cold War years it decided mainly to oppose tyrants who were communists, like Fidel Castro -- while tolerating those, like the Shah of Iran, who were on our side in the anti-Soviet fight.

Learning to draw new lines, based on how much power we actually have, is the hard part of running a foreign policy these days. But the implication of Mr. Lake's speech is that we don't need lines at all. Everything that's bad, we'll be against. While the speech noted that world-wide democracy won't come overnight, its recommendations boiled down to an all-fronts, indefinite crusade against all bad guys, everywhere.

American policy has never run this way, and it never will, even under Bill Clinton and Anthony Lake. Idealistic vision is fine, but it's more important now for officials to talk specifically and realistically about the evils we can and cannot fight. Perhaps Mr. Lake, a former professor, was merely trying to stimulate discussion among the students. All right, class: begin!

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