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The British polar explorer Wally Herbert was in the middle of a long sled journey when he tripped on a piece of ice and fell. Sensing his vulnerability, his dogs viciously attacked him. After a few moments the dogs backed away to assess the damage they had done before resuming the attack. Herbert, seizing this opportunity, sprang up to his full height and grabbed his whip out of the sled. Knowing that the old order had returned, the dogs fell into line.
Today the United States is facing three simultaneous crises in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, each of which is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea are both years ahead of Iraq’s present development; North Korea probably already has a couple of nuclear bombs. The fate of all three countries, however, will largely be settled in Iraq. Over the past year, the United States has staked its credibility on Saddam’s ouster. He has become a symbol separate from the standard moral and practical arguments for war. Unless the United States proves its seriousness, American diplomacy in support of peace in East Asia and the Middle East will never rise above appeasement. Like Herbert’s half-wild dogs, the dictators of the world need a demonstration of authority.
Many people at this university and similar social environments are instinctively wary of the global authority wielded by the United States. At an anti-war rally earlier this year, Harvard history lecturer Tim McCarthy said that the “United States currently poses the greatest threat to world peace anywhere on the globe.” Farther left, one finds an even greater mistrust of the United States and an astonishing ability to excuse the sins of anyone willing to challenge it. So it is not surprising that the largest anti-war protests to date have been organized by extremist groups like the International Action Center, which supports ex-Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. If the United States really is the greatest threat to world peace, then leaders like Milosevic and countries like North Korea are bravely standing up to the evil hyperpower to return the world to a state of equality among nations.
History, of course, has known plenty of such eras. The European balance of power system was one. It lasted through centuries of wars of increasing devastation until competition between nations destroyed the continent in two world wars. The respective “Warring States” periods of China and Japan furnish more lessons, the gist of which is summarized in their names. Contrast these worlds with Pax Romana, Pax Britannia and now, Pax Americana. That war between major states today is unthinkable does not prove that the nature of international relations has fundamentally changed, only that the United States has more military power than any conceivable combination of hostile countries. So greatly does the United States outdistance the competition in military power that major war could only lead to a U.S. victory.
But even a hegemon cannot rest forever. Not only must it maintain a vast material lead over its competitors, it must demonstrate a willingness to use its resources to shed blood if it must. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks came after the United States failed to respond to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the USS Cole in Yemen. The 1993 debacle in Somalia proved to al Qaeda that to defeat the United States, all you have to do is kill a few Americans on camera. The alternative to mounting an overwhelming response to challengers like Saddam is to fight a bloody retreat from world primacy. Anti-American unrest in the Middle East reached its peak after Sept. 11 but before the Afghanistan campaign, when the United States seemed to be the most vulnerable and the extremists thought that they could win. But during operations in Afghanistan, the streets fell quiet.
Military action against Iraq will reduce the chance that we will have to go to war with Iran or North Korea. Rattled by a lively pro-democracy movement, Ayatollah Khamenei and his cohorts know that only through their control over the military can they retain control over a people who despise them. But in comparison to the Arsenal of Democracy that will set up shop next door in Iraq during and after a war, their trump card looks like playground equipment and they will have no choice but to adopt a more pro-American outlook. Similarly, war against North Korea is highly undesirable; the 11 million residents of Seoul sleep within the range of North Korean artillery. Allowing that state to retain and increase its nuclear capability, however, is just as unthinkable. Only once the United States has shown that it follows words with action in Iraq will the negotiators have any chance
You can be sure that Pyongyang and Tehran are closely watching how the United States deals with Iraq. Though we should try not to upset our allies, it would be even more dangerous to forget this other audience, whose instincts are far more raw and primal.
Ebon Y. Lee ’04 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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