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American Diplomacy
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February 2004

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Changing the Story

The Ceremonial Changing of the Story—the story behind the phrase has resonated recently on the American scene. And the phrase is among the most apt these old eyes has seen in a long time. It originates with, if I'm not mistaken, humorist Argus Hamilton, a wry observer in the daily press of national and international scene. He wrote recently about crowds in Washington, DC, peering through the ornate iron fence that surrounds the White House, there to observe the Ceremonial Changing of the Story.

Echoes of the formalities at Buckingham Palace!

In truth the gradual changing of the administration's story—the explanation for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—has become a hot topic of conversation and the lead item for political contention in this nation, as well as in Great Britain. With a national election coming this fall, the Bush administration finds itself with an unexpected absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction evidence. An embarrassment, to say the least, given the executive branch's unequivocal, emphatic warnings last year about the danger to America and its allies posed by the Saddam regime and its store of such weapons.

Hardly anyone disputes that Iraq under the rule of a ruthless, long-lasting despot was one of the civilized world's lingering embarrassments, this in an era when even the largest authoritarian regime of them all, the U.S.S.R., had fallen apart and adopted a representative electoral system. Iraq's dictator continued in power and personified the axiom that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.

But now, in the aftermath of the U.S./British military victory, proof is lacking on what was seen at the highest levels in Washington and London as Iraq's prime threat. Critics raise questions on the accuracy of U. S. intelligence; at the same time, the President and his spokesmen reassert that, clear proof of WMDs or not, he took the right action in launching an attack and invasion. At least partially to head off criticism in the November election, the White House has named a Presidential commission to look into the matter of intelligence and issue a report. We shall see—in the Spring of 2005.

Administration spokesmen, including regrettably Secretary of State Powell, have found it necessary to pull back from assertions, supported by details that now appear to be erroneous, about Iraq's threat to America and its friends. Indications are the "menace of WMDs" in actuality likely was nothing that unarmed UN inspectors could not have blunted and contained.

Maybe not, but that possibility was not fully explored.

Instead, for the first time in its long history, the United States without facing an overt act of provocation launched a preemptive war, thus doing an about-face from the nations time-honored tradition of fighting defensive wars. (Even under the umbrella of the Containment Policy, in Vietnam, that conflict was launched in a major way by the United States upon what was interpreted then as a provocation: the supposed 1964 gunboat attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin.)

Further, for only the second time in a century the United States entered a conflict virtually alone, with the exception of the UK. (That earlier exception again was the disastrous Vietnam War.) No World War II Grand Alliance this time around, no alliance with Britain, France, and Italy as in World War I, no UN backing as in the Korean War, no NATO structure as in the Cold War, no UN coalition as in the First Gulf War. It was for America close to a go-it-alone war.

The lessons to be learned for foreign policy from this experience are, if not totally clear, at least indicated in outline:

  • If attacked, as by foreign military forces at Pearl Harbor in 1941, or in a less clear example, by an identifiable Afghanistan-based terrorist group at New York City in 2001, the nation must without doubt respond with all its military might. But not otherwise, not in an unprovoked preemptive fashion. The United States should not go abroad seeking demons to attack, whether or not given evil-doers deserve to be crushed.
  • Under virtually all circumstances in the modern world, and especially given the plague of transnational terrorism, international cooperation is a virtual must.
    Going it alone even for a superpower yields at the very best less-than-optimum results. Such a worldwide affliction needs worldwide counteraction.
  • The United States therefore should return, explicitly and forthwith, to the practice of actively seeking cooperation with the international community. Most important in this regard is the UN. Washington should back, further, and seek to expand the UN's recent initiative with respect to national elections in Iraq. This move should then be repeated generally on all important matters concerning the shadowy world war on terror

No, it won't be easy, altering the nations course, but it is a clear necessity, one amply demonstrated by the fact of continuing bloodshed in Iraq and the continuing menace of international terrorism.

-- Editor Henry E. Mattox


Editor Henry Mattox.

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