Hoover Daily Report

9/11 Nostalgia

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

I have lived in Boston for five years now, so I know it can't be the water. Or the dust from the Big Dig. Or even the curse of the Bambino. No, it must be something endemic to political conventions. The Republicans will hold theirs soon enough, presumably providing fodder of their own for observers like me, so let me deal with the departed Democrats.

I have a title for their folly. I call it "9/11 Nostalgia." No, I'm not suggesting the Democrats were any less affected than most of the civilized world by the horror of the event. But in its aftermath—the worldwide expressions of shock, the empathy of the French, the solidarity of the Alliance, the coming together of the country—the Democrats found a moment that could somehow have been bottled, preserved for the future as the United States chartered a course against worldwide terrorism. The presumption was that a John Kennedy or Harry Truman could have set such a course for others to follow just as they did in the Cold War against communism. And from Jimmy Carter to Barak Obama to Joseph Biden to Max Cleland the convention theme was shame on George W. Bush for squandering that moment! Shame on Bush for letting the French and Germans slip away! Shame on Bush for not racing toward independence from Mideast oil, so, as John Kerry says, no American solider will ever again have to die in a war for oil.

What a naive misreading of postwar history and of recent events. Let us take the French, for example. Saved twice by American intervention and drawn into a common NATO defense, the French still sought to lessen American influence by developing their own nuclear deterrent, strengthening their entente with Germany, and forging their own relations in the Third World.

The Cold War years seem rosy only in hindsight. In fact, much of the world chose not to follow the U.S. lead. Certainly the People's Republic of China didn't. Nor did India, at least in foreign policy. Emerging African and Asian nations generally chose neutrality. Arab powers like Egypt and Syria looked to the Soviets for help against Israel, at least until they had lost four wars.

At international meetings in those years one encountered a long list of grievances against Washington: coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile; efforts to overthrow Castro; support for reactionary tyrants around the world. Even the Reagan military build-up, which finally tipped the scales, drew widespread alliance opposition.

Let us face facts: those who accepted U.S. leadership did so because they did not wish to be overrun by communist neighbors. Now that threat has passed, and the United States stands as the world's sole superpower or as the French say, "hyper-power." Therefore, it is in the interest of most nations to check Washington's influence. This is the situation that confronted Bush when he sought allies to fight with the United States in Iraq. It will confront Kerry or Bush again in the next administration and their successors in administrations beyond that. All will have to determine what steps are in the vital U.S. interests with little certainty of military help from traditional allies.