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by Ronald D. Palmer

The following remarks have been adapted from a sermon delivered by the author at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Louisville, KY, on February 24, 2002. Here he focuses attention on another aspect of the war on terrorism, especially the campaigns apparently beginning in Southeast Asia. Ed.

I will speak today primarily from a line in Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.

At this point after our swift victory in the Afghanistan War, some voices are urging that the United States establish an empire, an imperium in which we will smite the evil of terrorism, hip and thigh, as in Matthew, Chapter Four, wherever it appears. We need to beware of such voices.

There is a tendency to think things were better in the “good old days” when we studied Abraham Lincoln’s life and works before February 12, when we made and exchanged Valentine’s cards in class before February 14, and when we studied George Washington’s life and works before his February 22 birthday. Washington’s exploits were understandable to a young boy: chopping down a cherry tree, throwing a coin across a river, Valley Forge, etc. Abraham Lincoln, however, was less accessible. He had freed the slaves and he delivered the Gettysburg Address, which we memorized, and he had been assassinated. But there was an adult mystery to Lincoln that escaped a child’s perception.

It was only as I became an adult that I became more able to ascend the heights of Lincoln’s rhetoric. One can read Lincoln’s speeches and discover the wonder that virtually every sentence could be included in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I could not initially find the phrase that I will discuss with you today, namely, “the better angels of our nature.” It is almost a throwaway line in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. It is the last sentence in a paragraph that includes these words: “The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the organ when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.”

What and who are the better angels of our nature? Lincoln was suggesting these were humaneness, compassion, good will, tolerance, and other good things. What lay ahead though was four years of savage war and 600,000 deaths before those positive values could be invoked again by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, asking these better angels to bear “malice towards none, with charity for all . . .” Those thoughts are valid for us now as we move on to the post-Taliban phase of the war against terrorism in which we are now engaged.

Where are we now after September 11, 2001? We have had swift success in the war against the Taliban but clearly success in the larger war against terrorism will be slow. Optimistic voices speak of nation building in Afghanistan, but no one can build a nation except those within the nation. The best we can hope to do there and in other failed or failing states is to help build state capacity. This is the process by which states can develop the infrastructure of security; education; respect for human rights, including the liberation of women; the building of roads, bridges, health care systems, and all the elements of modern civilization, including governments that work for the benefit of their citizens rather than privileged classes.

The identifiable enemy, the Taliban, appears to have been defeated. The less identifiable enemies of all mankind, the Silent Enemies of disease, poverty, etc., that nurture hate, envy, and terrorism will take longer to defeat. Guns can help but they are not the answer. We note that the increment to U. S. military spending requested in the upcoming fiscal year will be $48 billion. This is equal to all the worldwide spending for development assistance. This comparison merits our prayerful reflection.

What we call “Globalization,” the triumphant march of capitalism, is deeply upsetting to those who experience it as a tidal wave that threatens to wash away all before it including the basic values that undergird ancient traditions in the non-western, less-developed, world. Identity is one of the anchoring foundations of human society. Locality, territory, language, clan, tribe, culture, dress, food, male-female relationships, marriage, family, and of course religion—all provide the glue that helps maintain psychological stability. Political, social, and economic justice can or should provide the hope that is necessary in times of transition and change. In the West, we tend to think that change is easy, but it’s not. Change is hard. Change in Europe from patriarchal-, family-, and clan-based feudal systems took hundreds of years and resulted in murderous domestic and external warfare. In reflecting on change, we need to remember that the noun “revolution” is based on the verb revolve, that is, to replace an existing power structure by revolving a new or different one into place. Those out of power want to get power. Terrorism and assassination have been classic tools in such strategies.

The perpetrators of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington hoped to deliver crushing blows to American morale. They failed. They also hoped to provoke the United States into a ferocious, mindless assault on Islam. They hoped this strategy would undermine Muslim governments that were U. S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and open the way for governments that would be hostile to the United States. We have been wise enough to avoid this trap to date, but we need the continuing guidance of the better angels of our nature to keep cool and avoid reckless enthusiasm.

Historian Paul Schroeder examines some of the pitfalls that now lie in the path of the United States in his article, “The Risks of Victory,” in the 2001-2002 issue of The National Interest. He states there the United States faces three problems:

1) We must avoid giving terrorists the war they want but we do not;
2) We must reckon the effect of our actions, not just in the immediate but in their longer effects on the entire structure of world order, and
3) We must beware of the risks of victory as well as the risks of defeat.

If we are not careful and wise, the United States could find itself enmeshed even deeper in the Middle East and Southeast Asia than it is today, and risk generating greater prospective dangers in the process of containing smaller near-term problems.

America has leaped eagerly into the Philippine fight against the Abu Sayyaf organization. Part of our purpose is to rescue American hostages held by this murderous group. The United States would also like to regain military basing and access rights lost when the Philippines revoked such rights in 1991. Despite a strong current of nationalist dissatisfaction that the Americans have returned to the Philippines in a military role, the Philippine Government hopes to muffle such discontent by obtaining large supplies of American military equipment, including aircraft, as well as economic assistance. U. S. aircraft are flying surveillance missions over Basilan Island south of Zamboanga in Mindinao where some 600 U. S. military personnel are scheduled to be deployed against Abu Sayyaf.

I have seen no mention to date by any American official that there are two other equally dangerous Muslim terrorist groups in the Southern Philippines, two groups that are better equipped, better-trained, better-organized, and better-led than the Abu Sayyaf gangster operation. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has been operating in the area since 1969. It reached a “peace” agreement with the Philippine Government in 1996, but has recently resumed hostile actions. The MNLF seeks a political role in which it would hold power in areas of the South. Libya has supported it in the past.

In its power-seeking activities, the MNLF leadership has demonstrated great corruption. The more hard-line Moro Islamic Liberation Front was formed in 1977 in reaction to the perceived failings of the MNLF. It has been a tough, austere, effective opponent of the central government, but to date it has publicly distanced itself from Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

The MNLF and MILF have thousands of supporters. In contrast, the Abu Sayyaf, formed in 1991, is far smaller. Its forces on Basilan reportedly number as few as sixty and not more than 100 personnel. Philippine Army forces on the island number more than 6,000. As noted, the proposed U. S. force will number about 600. Thus there is a significant danger of an expansion of the U. S. military role in the southern Philippines. The Abu Sayyaf is only the tip of the iceberg.

Mission expansion is already a danger in Afghanistan. U. S. military forces face the prospect of having to intervene against warring factions of our allies. Getting bogged down in Afghanistan and the Philippines are very real prospects for the United States. Thus, talk of action against the Iraq-Iran-North Korea “Axis of Evil” is overblown rhetoric at best. Proposals for U. S. military action in Columbia, Somalia, Yemen, and Indonesia, presumably among others, clearly could only ensnare the United States further. Such prospects merit rigorous public study and comment.

In this imperial moment, the United States must think clearly. We must also listen for the stirring of the wings of the angels of our better nature. The problems of the world are real, but if every present and would-be terrorist is killed tomorrow, next week or next year, those problems will still be there. Some attempts at solutions will require money. We spent money to help Europe and Japan recover after World War II, but we need to remember that while we offered those nations abundant friendship, guidance, security, and tough love, they made their own recoveries happen. We need to summon the strong and righteous angels of wisdom, humility, compassion, and tough love now in the present struggle. We need to reject the weak and evil angels of pride, hate, arrogance, intolerance, racism, and the belief that force is the answer to all problems—or, indeed, that we in the United States have answers to all problems.

We face the difficult task of trying to help governments build their state capacity to do a better job of taking care of their own people. Such help will differ from case to case. Building peace and prosperity will not be easy, but it is rewarding work. It is not boastful to state that we have useful experience to share. We may. however, have to learn better, even bitter, lessons in how to do it.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the Children of God.”


Ambassador Palmer decided to become a diplomat as a teenager in 1948 when Dr. Ralph Bunche was appointed to negotiate an end to the first Arab-Israeli war. The author served as U. S. ambassador to Togo, Malaysia, and Mauritania, retiring from the career Foreign Service in 1989.


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