Sunday, February 05, 2006

John Adams Reconsidered

Today I finished reading David McCullough's John Adams, which chronicles our second president's childhood in Braintree (later Quincy) Massachusetts, his notable career as a lawyer, his pivotal role in the American Revolution, his ambassadorial service to France and Great Britain, his two terms as a loyal vice-president to George Washington, his rather thankless term as president, and finally the long twilight of his years which is most famous for the remarkable correspondence he and Thomas Jefferson struck up after many years of estrangement.

Adams had an unenviable role in history, his presidency sandwiched between George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's and plagued not only be an undeclared war with France, but by what was probably the most disloyal and scheming cabinet ever to afflict any president. Adams is most remembered for the deservedly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, which he signed into law. He is less known for his remarkable leadership in the American Revolution, his herculean efforts to keep America from a full-blown war with France (an unenviable balancing act that made him unpopular with the warmongering Federalists and the obsequiesly pro-French Republicans), his creation of the American Navy, and his appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

What most impresses one about John Adams, though, is the remarkable correspondence he kept up with everyone in his life, particularly his wife Abigail and his once-and-future friend Thomas Jefferson. In these letters one sees a very kind, brilliant and compassionate man whose simple Puritan values--from which he never deviated, aside from the sin of pride, to which he often confessed freely--set him apart from the scheming, partisan politics that were born during his presidency. For all his natural genius and accomplishments, one cannot help but feel a little less admiration for Thomas Jefferson in contrast. As close as the two men and their families were during their service in Europe, Jefferson would later resort to some of the most deplorable and underhanded means of discrediting his former friend, while Adams refused to speak ill of Jefferson in anything but private correspondence with friends and family. Perhaps the most baffling development of all was the Republicans' portrayal of John Adams as an aristocratic, pro-British Monarchist, when in fact he lived frugally and humbly all his life and never was either pro-British or a Monarchist. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, while portrayed as a "man of the people" by his supporters, lived as an aristocrat his whole life, supported by more than a hundred slaves and accumulating massive debts through his extravagant lifestyle.

And yet, the warm friendship that Adams and Jefferson restored in their years of retirement makes the closing chapters of the book some of the most touching and inspiring to read. That these two men died on the same day, that this day was the Fourth of July, and that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration no less, has to be one most awe-inspiring "cooincidences" in the annals of history.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Myth of Isolationism

[This is a slightly longer version of a post I made at Patrick Barkman's blog, The Local Crank.]

From the president's repeated references to isolationists and isolationism in his State of the Union address Tuesday, you might suppose there is a massive movement afoot to literally cut ourselves off from the rest of the world politically, militarily and economically and declare ourselves a "hermit state." The fact of the matter is, nothing could be farther from the truth. There is not a single elected official in our government, nor any group of Americans worth mentioning, advocating anything like isolationism.

Like Shangri La, American isolationism is a myth; our nation has never been, at any time in its history, an isolationist power. From our very founding we have always been actively engaged with the rest of the world, and not just commercially. As early as 1804 the U.S. landed marines in North Africa and William Eaton marched them across the desert---with Arab, Greek and Berber allies no less---to attack the Barbary pirates at the city of Derna. Before the 1930's, "isolation" was only mentioned as a fact of American geography and never in connection with any foreign policy. But in the Spanish-American War, a "policy of isolation" was attributed by the war's proponents to anyone who disagreed with the war and the subsequent assimilation of foreign peoples like the Filipinos. It was also used to label those who advocated neutrality in the 1930's, as the clouds of war in Asia and Europe continued to gather. As Walter McDougall aptly describes in Promised Land, Crusader State, "our vaunted tradition of 'isolationism' is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies."

McDougall argues instead that the true tradition of American foreign policy "isolationism" misleadingly refers to is Unilateralism, a policy "which never meant that the United States should, or for that matter could, sequester itself or pursue an ostrich-like policy toward all foreign countries. It simply meant, as Hamilton and Jefferson both underscored, that the self-evident course for the United States was to avoid permanent, entangling alliances and to remain neutral in Europe's wars except when our Liberty--the first hallowed tradition [of American foreign policy]--was at risk."

McDougall believes there is an "Old Testament" of American foreign policy consisting of four traditions--Liberty, Unilateralism, The American System and Expansionism--and a "New Testament" consisting of Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment and Global Meliorism. By his definitions President Bush could best be described as a Global Meliorist in that he believes America has a divinely ordained mission to "change the world for the better," though there are certainly elements of the other traditions in his foreign policy as well.

And now, unfortunately, his administration has revived that old dirty word "isolationist" as a way to marginalize anyone who questions their interventionist policies, and particularly the war in Iraq.

There is one major problem with this logic that supporters and opponents of the war alike should recognize and candidly acknowledge: most of the war's critics supported the invasion of Afghanistan to capture Bin Laden and destroy the Al Qaeda network there. That they didn't support the invasion of Iraq doesn't mean they suddenly became "isolationists" between 2001 and 2002; it simply makes them opponents of the invasion of Iraq. A casual survey of even just our own history demonstrates that not every military intervention is equally wise or justified. Any time war is an option, it must be debated on its particular merits and not in a sweeping black-and-white generalization that inaccurately dismisses all opponents as isolationists. In the case of Iraq, there were very legitimate reasons to believe it was unwise, at a time when our invasion of Afghanistan had not yet achieved its full objectives, to divide our resources and attack a nation that had no connection to 9/11 and did not--even by the administration's admisson--pose an immediate threat to the U.S. To raise these points is not to advocate a fictitious doctrine like isolationism, but to properly place Iraq in a very different category of threat than Afghanistan.

The president has a valid point when he says that "second guessing is not a policy." The debate over the wisdom of invading Iraq is now a subject of purely academic debate; Congress, as it has increasingly done in the last 50 years, temporized and gave the president an "authorization of force" without an outright declaration of war, and those who voted for it have little to no credibility in revisiting that academic debate now, as American servicemembers continue to die every day in pursuit of a stable and democratic Iraq. The proper debate now should be on how we can bring those servicemembers home in a way that does not immorally abandon the people of Iraq to decades of chaos and violence.

In my humble opinion, the president is doing a grave disservice to a nation that already has such difficulty separating fact from fiction by portraying "isolationism" as the only alternative to his policies. Let's stick to the facts and put aside these fairy tales.