“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Those words first voiced in 1815 by Captain Stephen Decatur Jr., America’s first post-revolution hero and, to this day, the youngest Captain ever commissioned by the US Navy, should be on the mind of every American President and every American Secretary of State every waking hour.
Though condensed and trivialized over time to the over simplified, “My country right or wrong,” and ridiculed by those who are embarrassed by patriotism, Decatur’s words, we believe, revealed a prescient understanding that future leaders of the then still very young republic would be called upon to make difficult decisions if the unique quality of American Liberty was to be preserved…decisions that could drastically impact the lives of many Americans. Decatur also understood that while mistakes might be made from time to time, as long as the mission was the preservation of liberty and freedom, the republic deserved the support of the people.
We don’t believe Decatur was being cavalier and we don’t wish to be either. He had seen war up close and personal, having commanded an incredibly heroic raid at Tripoli harbor that the legendary British Admiral Horatio Nelson, later called “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Decatur had been dispatched, along with the newly established First Marines, by Thomas Jefferson to the shores of Tripoli on the Barbary Coast in support of what may have been the most important and long enduring foreign policy decision since the birth of the new American nation. America would protect its interests, any place, any time and at any cost. Defending liberty has always required determination and a clear sense of purpose. Often its cost would be high. Thirty-five American servicemen were lost on the Barbary Coast as the young nation first asserted its right to sail the high seas anywhere in the world.
A century and a half later John F. Kennedy made the same point when he pronounced, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Nothing ambiguous about Jefferson’s policies, or those of James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy or those of most any other American Administration up until the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 when Jimmy Carter’s vacillation and lack of resolve caused foreign leaders to doubt America’s willingness to defend its interests even in the face of an act of war against it.
The cost of establishing and then preserving a nation predicated on the audacious idea of liberty and personal freedom has been high. America has lost 1,315,000 men and women fighting for and preserving its freedom since its founding 235 years ago. Ninety five percent of those losses are accounted for by the Civil War (626,000) and the two World Wars (623,026). The Civil War was, by far, the most costly in terms of deaths per day and percentage of population lost. America has, throughout most of its history, sent a clear message that it would face down any threat to its core value of liberty and personal freedom…its raison d’être.
War is costly in blood and treasure. But history does not stand still. Victory in war has not brought us everlasting peace. Evil exists in every generation and must be confronted, first through seeking diplomatic solutions, albeit mindful of President Theodore Roosevelt’s cautionary remark about effective diplomacy, “Walk softly but carry a big stick.”
Ronald Reagan understood this far better than his predecessor, and was determined to reassert American resolve following the Carter years. When asked what his vision was regarding the cold war he famously responded, “we win, they lose.” While his response may have seemed somewhat flippant to the intellectual elite, Reagan clearly wasn’t joking. Years later when Mikhail Gorbachev was asked what ended the cold war; he answered, without hesitation, “Reagan at Reykjavik.” Reagan was passionate about freedom and he, like Jefferson, had no illusions about the dangers of taking our hard-won freedoms for granted. “Freedom”, he said, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
There may be a place for ambiguity in the art of diplomacy, but ambiguity as policy is fraught with danger. Ambiguity signals to friend and foe alike that we may not have a policy for a major area of concern, or that it is evolving or that it is being reconsidered or revised. Friends may feel far less secure and scurry to cover their bases through new alliances. Enemies may feel far more emboldened.
If the Obama Administration has a policy with respect to Iran’s determination to develop nuclear arms capability we cannot determine what it is. We don’t believe Iran knows what American policy is either, nor do we think, Israel does, or the EU or Russia or China. Perhaps, even more disturbing, we seriously doubt whether America knows what its policy will be when Iran finally confirms what every nation already knows. In fairness, President Obama’s predecessors all stumbled over Iran ever since Jimmy Carter’s ill-conceived handling of the Iran hostage crisis helped cement the radical mullahs hold on power.
President Obama articulated a new policy of engagement with Iran when he assumed the presidency. America offered an olive branch to the mullahs. The mullahs responded by accelerating Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts. We gave Iran a deadline for accepting our outstretched hand. The deadline came and passed leaving our outstretched hand dangling as a daily reminder by Iran to the rest of the world that it considers America yesterday’s news.
In an effort to entice Iran and other rogue nuclear states into compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, America announced that it would unilaterally commit to foregoing a nuclear response to any non-nuclear attack against us by any nation that was in compliance with the treaty. Iran responded by calling President Obama “wicked and untrustworthy.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with the Iranian Armed Forces chief of staff and other top military officials, accused the United States of threatening to use nuclear weapons against Iran. In other words, the Supreme Leader almost immediately dismissed America’s candor in explicitly explaining its new strategic nuclear arms policy, a policy that limited American retaliatory options, with a back-of-the-hand wave off.
The harder we try to entice, if not appease, Iran the more dismissive they become of us. And now, to complicate matters further, Turkey and Brazil have journeyed to Tehran to provide a fig leaf for Iran’s continued nuclear enrichment program. They will take approximately half of Iran’s uranium for further safe enrichment while Iran gets to keep the rest (and to presumably acquire more) and to keep increasing their enrichment activity in violation of numerous UN resolutions. So far, what passes for American policy with respect to Iran has produced no tangible progress, not so much as an atom’s worth of forward progress.
Months of negotiating sanctions against Iran and compromising with Russia and China who consistently seek to water down the effectiveness of any sanctions regime have now been put in abeyance in deference to the “fig leaf” provided by Brazil and Turkey. At the end of the day, if we may use a frightfully overused expression, America is going to have to look after its own interests and those of its friends who may be threatened and need our help. Procrastination in the face of a hostile nation seeking to develop nuclear weapons is worse than negligent. It is gambling with the survival of liberty in America and around the world. Exhibit A to the consequences of allowing a rogue nation to “go nuclear” are in front of our eyes right now in Korea. Forming “coalitions of the willing” to take forceful action generally work only when our prospective partners know we are willing, even if they are not.
North Korea, now a nuclear state, and not wanting to take second place to anyone when it comes to exposing America’s waning influence in the world committed a blatant act of war against South Korea, a critical American ally. They torpedoed a non-threatening South Korean vessel, the Cheonan, which was clearly in international waters killing all forty-six men onboard. North Korea understands perfectly well the size and the extent of American forces on the Korean Peninsula and the enormity of our firepower there as well. What they have every reason not to understand is the depth of our commitment and our willingness “to support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Consequently, they must have felt relatively safe in initiating the most provocative and dangerous act to take place on the peninsula in half a century. Assuredly their leaders took into account that South Korea and America are aware that they have a nuclear capability. Their uncertainty about our resolve to “support any friend” cannot be laid entirely at the feet of President Obama. George Bush blundered when he removed North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Time and again we have rewarded North Korea for promises it soon breaks. We have dithered our way to the current state of affairs and North Korea has provided a dramatic answer to the question of where such mollycoddling leads.
We have maintained an uninterrupted armed presence in South Korea for over fifty years. We have troops there whose grandfathers served in Korea and in less than five years we will have troops there whose great grandfathers served there. Just what is our policy with respect to North Korea? Does South Korea know? Does North Korea know? Does the Administration know?
South Korea has, appropriately, suspended all trade with the North and says it will, with US support, block North Korean ships from entering South Korean waters. The United States and South Korea have also announced joint military maneuvers in the area. These are strong, but inadequate steps. The entire international community must act in solidarity with South Korea, and China must make clear, in no uncertain terms, that North Korea can no longer count on The People’s Republic to defend its indefensible behavior. Unfortunately, we are not optimistic that such solidarity will materialize. This may, indeed, be the moment when America is called upon “to support any friend and oppose any foe…”
Next we come to the Middle East where America’s first foray into foreign affairs began on the Barbary Coast so many years ago. Here too our friends, both Arab and Israeli, nervously watch the high-stakes game of chicken being played out between America and Iran. They and the rest of the world were told by President Obama that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a “game changer.” But no one knows what that statement means in the real world.
We have delivered a very public tongue lashing to the Israelis over the clumsy announcement of planned new construction in a Jewish neighborhood contiguous to Arab housing in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority then promptly demanded that we impose a solution on Israel to resolve the half-century old dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
We are apparently pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Syria, and to show our good will we have dispatched an ambassador to the former axis-of-evil state, to which Syria has responded by sending longer-range rockets to its proxies, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. The rockets, of course, make their way to Lebanon from Iran though Syria. Meanwhile, Israel’s ability, like America’s ability, to influence events with respect to the Iranian nuclear threat diminishes every day.
We understand the difficulty faced by the Administration. These are not problems of their making and they are quick to remind us of that. But they are problems they have been elected and appointed to deal with. The threats from our adversaries are growing and they are not apt to go away on their own. Events are hurtling toward either conflict or resolution. Decisions, very difficult decisions, will have to be made. As Stephen Decatur said two hundred years ago, “may (America) always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” We have no doubt that liberty is at stake and, once again, by defending it America would be in the right.
By Hal Gershowitz and Stephan Porter