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Use Moral Example Instead of ‘Spine’

Nancy  Mitchell

Nancy Mitchell is assistant professor of history at North Carolina State
University. Her study “The Danger of Dreams: German and American
Imperialism in Latin American, 1895-1914” is forthcoming from the
University of North Carolina Press later this year.   ~ Ed.

T’S EASY TO LEARN FROM FAILURE:  You go back to the dugout and analyze where you went wrong. But it’s hard to learn from success. All you want to do is go out and party, happy with the assumption that what worked once will work again. But the game has changed. The Cold War is over, yet we’re still in our fighting posture, displaying at every turn what Madeleine Albright calls “spine.” 

Albright has a difficult job, wrestling with Saddam Hussein on the one hand and Jesse Helms on the other, while ducking the fact that Clinton lied to her. It’s easy to sit here in Raleigh and criticize her, but, given the constraints of her job, it might not be fair. But I wish she’d rethink what security and strength mean in this post-Cold War era. Now that we don’t face the Soviet threat, we have an incredible opportunity, and I fear we’re letting it slip away. The military, as President Eisenhower knew, can only perform military tasks. Security must derive from a much broader base—economic growth, domestic well-being and particularly an educated citizenry. 

Now that the Cold War is over, we can afford to take resources from the military and put them into infrastructure and education. Albright says that we are not— most of us—crusaders. This is true, but she still seems to think that the way to deal with any threat is with spine. 

Perhaps, however, we should lead by example, not by intimidation. 

Albright says we face five threats—terrorism, Saddam Hussein, North Korea, Bosnia, and nuclear proliferation. These are certainly problems, the world is certainly turbulent, and people are suffering, but it is important to recognize that none of these “threats” fills the shoes of the old Soviet Union. 

There is really no way we can assess the administration’s bombing of Sudan in retaliation for the African embassy bombings because the Clinton Administration has declared itself judge and jury of the evidence that the factory was connected to Bin Laden. 

If, as Albright claims, America wants to be a “catalyst and coalition builder” among the nations of the world, then we can’t flout the basic rules of international order. We can’t bomb a factory in the middle of the capital city of the largest country in Africa and say, “Trust us. It was a bomb factory.” 

History shows that all chickens come home to roost. It might take a long time, but there will be repercussions to this. 

Look, for example, at Iran. In 1953, the CIA helped engineer a coup to bring the Shah back to power. For us, this “success” was  easily forgotten. But the Iranians remembered. 

Twenty-six years later, when they feared the United States was again angling to bring back the Shah, they seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran. 

On nonproliferation, likewise, Albright’s solution is spine: The nuclear club gang together and beat the pretenders off with “real pressure.” But perhaps this is not the most enlightened approach. Perhaps we should follow the advice of former CIA director Stansfield Turner to unilaterally agree to store all but a minimal number of our warheads under international supervision, still available to us, but not poised to shoot. 

[Click here to read Admiral Turner’s intriguing “New Nuclear Triad” proposal in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy. ~ Ed.]

Perhaps this could wean us away from the security we derive from our overkill capacity, and perhaps by this example we could more effectively lead the campaign for nonproliferation. 

Albright doesn’t mention one simmering wound that we could easily begin to heal. Whatever we might think of Castro, if we aspire to be moral leader of the world, we cannot willfully ignore the U.N. General Assembly’s call, supported by every nation but Israel, to lift the embargo against Cuba. It’s just an unseemly grudge match, well beneath the dignity of, as Albright says, “the nation whose finest planted the flag at Iwo Jima and plunged into hell at Omaha beach.” 

Spine, or brute power, can work. We can bomb Sudan, and flout the Security Council; we can defy U.N. resolutions; we can refuse to pay our U.N. dues. 

But spine can also undermine our desire to provide moral leadership. This is what I’d like to see Albright and the Clinton Administration emphasize. Now when our power is so great, we can afford to lead by example. 

If not now, when? 

Originally published in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) Sunday, November 8, 1998, pp. 25A, 27A. Republished by permission.

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