We start to see again why Madeleine Albright, when she was Secretary of State, called America “the indispensable nation.” It was because back then, and before — a long time before; say, from 1941 forward — we were just that: indispensable in terms of power and intentions of the generally beneficent sort. How indispensable we have permitted ourselves to remain is a matter open to animated discussion. On the other hand, where’s the competition? Know any other country these days with comparable power and a sense of, at the very least, residual decency?
The questions hit home in these nervous days following, first, the Trump-ordered cruise missile strike on the Syrians for use of sarin gas on villagers and, second, the back-to-back Palm Sunday massacres of Christians in Egypt.
The situations are not identical twins. Of military leverage in Syria we still have a modicum. That is thanks to the U.S. Navy, and very much in spite of President Obama’s reversals over moral “red lines,” plus his notion that the country he served as president was morally compromised by long-ago misdeeds. Prof. Dr. Obama, rather than wield American power just about anywhere, chose to finger it gingerly, all the while delivering lectures that made many of his countrymen yearn for the swaggering gait of George W. Bush.
In Egypt, the plight of Coptic Christians targeted for destruction by — may the Democrats pardon me! — “Islamic Terrorists” is not one the Pentagon is capable of addressing directly. On the other hand, Egypt’s America-friendly military regime benefits already from the Trump administration’s relaxed attitude toward regimes not necessarily nice but a lot nicer for sure than the free-lance homicidal maniacs of radical Islam. In broader terms, the Palm Sunday massacres argue for more forceful U.S. leadership in putting the maniacs away for good: either directly or through cooperation with more sensible Middle Easterners.
‘‘Nationalism” as a slogan made an impact during the 2016 campaigns: the focus on us and our own needs over the needs of the world. But for indispensable nations narrow viewpoints wash only in part, and not thoroughly. You can’t go play in your backyard when no one else is capable of doing the vital work at hand. From time to time you have to step in, as in Bosnia back in the ’90s, when, without NATO intervention, many thousands who lived would otherwise have died. How many of Syria’s 400,000 dead might be alive now had not the Obama administration looked for an easy way out of a situation requiring American resolve?
Trump, possibly without intending to do so, has brilliantly focused minds on the consequences of turning over whole international neighborhoods to punks and thugs.
Evil effects, when ignored, tend to multiply — a priceless insight from New York City’s “broken windows” policing in the ’90s. New York, blessed at the time with relatively conservative civic leadership, sought to discourage the big bad stuff — murder especially — by cracking down on smaller not-so-bad stuff, such as vandalism. What you find you can get away with, you get away with if you’re of a thuggish disposition; then you see what else you can do without anyone’s calling your hand. Failing to punish Syria for earlier use of chemicals against Syrian civilians encouraged the regime to gas yet more civilians.
Trump hasn’t shown all the cards in his hand; possibly he hasn’t even looked at his hand. For all that, he is due vast credit for showing that even a practicing nationalist in charge of the indispensable nation is somebody of whom a practicing terrorist might want to walk wide.
George Bush’s democracy-for-everybody line of business was unrealistic; but so, in a world whose dangers he tended to slight, were Barack Obama’s sermons and lectures. If Donald Trump can miraculously steer the indispensable nation between rock-’em-and-sock-’em and oh-mercy-me-what-can-we-do?, ours might prove a safer, freer world.
Looking to Donald Trump as the enabler, the patent-holder of way between wild extremes — I think I see the problem. What we know of Trump, nevertheless, is… you never quite know.
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