Monday, November 30, 2009

The World on His Shoulders

As the President prepares to inform the nation from West Point of his intentions on Afghanistan, I cannot help but reflect on the incredible burdens that lay on the President’s shoulders. From international crises and risk points in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, threats of nuclear proliferation in unstable and hostile regions, human rights abuses in China, Pakistani-Indian tensions and the ever present risk of nuclear escalation, the rampant dysfunction in Russian society, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia, the spread of Islamic terrorism in Indonesia, African genocide and ethnic conflict, Mexican drug violence, the futility of Israeli-Palestinian peace and the rising influence of Hamas and Hezbollah extremists; the list goes on and the tensions never cease. From the seemingly safe confines of America, the world’s troubles appear distant. Yet cumulatively these troubles far outweigh in importance the rest of the President’s agenda.

U.S. foreign policy affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. Prices, jobs, the supply of oil, taxes, the life and death of our men and women in uniform, and the safety and security of our ports and means of transportation -- all are impacted by exertions of American power and influence in foreign lands. This is, of course, not new, nor is it unique to President Obama. I have always believed that, despite our emphasis in presidential elections on domestic politics, the economy, abortion and gay marriage, health care reform, and hypothetical Supreme Court nominations, in the end what is most critical to our country’s future is how we as a nation interact with the rest of the world. Issues of war and peace always trump domestic squabbles.

When at its best, the United States can bring hope and light to the world, by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and providing aid and comfort to the neediest people. U.S funded programs like the Peace Corps, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, combined with the efforts of non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Lutheran World Relief, and Doctors Without Borders have launched ripples of justice in some of the darkest regions of the planet. At its worst, American foreign policy can inflict pain and suffering, cause destruction and wreak havoc, such as when we bomb villages and kill innocents and call it collateral damage. Sometimes the use of military power is essential to our security and the security of our friends and allies; some wars are necessary. But they should always, always, be the last resort.

Our actions have consequences, good and bad. When Peace Corps volunteers teach children in Serbia to read, or help a Cameroon farmer apply better agricultural techniques, Americans plant the seeds of peace. When we fire drone missiles into the valleys of northwest Pakistan, we inevitably sow disharmony and create future terrorists. Fair or not, much of the world's population views America through their own narrow lenses. When American values are proudly promoted by U.S. corporations and institutions abroad, we damage our credibility when our actions fail to live up to our proclamations. People and nations who should be naturally aligned with us instead turn away in disillusionment and disappointment.

There was a time when we could view the world through the bipolar lenses of the Cold War, when the only thing that really mattered in U.S. foreign policy was the Soviet-Chinese chess match and the East-West balance of power. Today, we live in a multi-polar world, one in which power is increasingly dispersed, distributed over many actors -- governments, NGOs, militia groups, major corporations and lending institutions, and world bodies -- rather than concentrated in the hands of a select group of nation states. The issues seem endless and insurmountable: the Iranian nuclear threat; the conflict with North Korea; the Israeli-Palestinian morass; the international debt crisis and the Dubai effect; mounting trade deficits; the effect of climate change on lesser-developed countries; our dependence on foreign oil; the international narcotics trade; uncontrollable immigration; world hunger and the spread of disease; the growth of Islamic extremism and, of course, terrorism.

The President has attempted, like many Presidents before him, to remain focused on his domestic agenda – health care reform and the economy. His domestic plate is certainly full. But how the President exerts American power and prestige around the world – whether he falls victim to an entrenched mindset that sees all problems as requiring a military solution, or whether he has the confidence to trust in American principles and the powerful example to which a compassionate democracy can bear witness – will determine his legacy in decades to come.

It is not always possible to reconcile morality with the hard facts of history. The United States, as the most powerful nation in the world, has never systematically thought out the legitimate uses and the inevitable limitations of power. The answer presumably does not lie either in mere swagger or in mere compassion. For President Obama, as with his predecessors, his decisions on foreign affairs, diplomacy, and the use of U.S. military might are his and his alone. In confronting the myriad of issues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa, the consequences of the President's decisions will be with us all for years to come. I trust this President to make thoughtful, rational, and foresighted decisions; I may not agree with his speech tomorrow night on Afghanistan, but I will listen with an open mind, knowing that at least he understands the profound impact of his burden. The world is a heavy one.

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