One doesn’t have to agree with every American foreign policy decision to recognize that American leadership in the world has been a good thing. It protected democratic Europe following WWII; it rehabilitated Japan into a thriving democracy; it brought an end to the Cold War and threats of nuclear annihilation with the demise of the Soviet Union; and its ideas of democracy have spread around the world, unevenly, but still overall a force for good.
As to the impact on Jews, the contrast is self-evident. Before WWII when America retreated from the world, it enabled the greatest disaster ever to the Jewish people. And, since, American leadership has helped produce the exceptional accomplishments we spoke about.
Interestingly, the bi-partisan support for American leadership came about after WWII when Republican isolationists from the twenties and thirties were transformed, led by Senator Robert Vandenberg, into internationalists in order to combat the Soviet threat. When the Berlin wall came down, there was talk that a new isolationism would rise up. Now that Republicans didn’t have the communist threat to contend with, it was argued, they might return to the old ways. It happened in some instances, note Pat Buchanan. Overall, however, it didn’t take.
Now however, some two decades later, we are seeing growing indications of a desire for America to retreat from the world. The combination of America’s unsatisfactory involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq together with the financial crisis at home have generated a broader opposition to American military involvement overseas. The recent issue surrounding Syria’s use of chemical weapons highlighted this trend. When President Obama announced he would attack Syria and then decided to obtain Congressional approval, he met a wall of resistance on both the Democratic left and the Republican right. Mistrust of government and entanglements overseas abounded. Members of Congress seemed merely to reflect the wishes of their constituencies. And when the President then turned to a Russian solution of ridding Syria of chemical weapons, a huge sigh of relief was heard throughout the nation. But what was also heard was questioning around the world whether America could be counted on – it was bad enough that the American people understandably wanted out, but where was the leadership in Washington to stand up?
This is not to say that anything about Syria is a slam dunk. There are no angels in this conflict. But the same thing was true about the Spanish Civil War between 1936-39, fascists on one side, communists on the other. But it was a testing ground for fascists and when they saw that the democracies did not meet the test, it helped lead directly to WWII.
In Syria, chemical weapons aside, allowing Assad the murderer of many thousands, to stay in power supported by Iran and Hezbollah, with America largely on the sidelines will send a terrible message. Iran will emerge the victor. Allies of America are wondering, the good potential outcome on Syrian chemical weapons notwithstanding, whether America’s desperation at all costs to avoid a military confrontation signals a dangerous weakening of American resolve.
And then on top of that comes this drive to find agreements with Iran on the nuclear issue. Let me be clear: if we can reach a satisfactory deal with Iran that ensures that if Iran is deceptive or abrogates that agreement, it couldn’t in a short time break out and speedily move to a bomb, I’d be all for it. The concern is the context: America seems desperate to avoid a confrontation with Iran; the Iranians, aware of that, are playing it to a fare-thee-well. Not only are they talking the language of moderation, but they are already offering substantive proposals that may appear more giving than they really are. Again, it’s not impossible that things can work out well, but when it appears to come from a perception of American weakness, it doesn’t bode well.
Arguments could be made to counter these points but often perception is reality. America is being seen as weak and retreating. The world looks at our choices, looks at our public opinion polls, looks at congressional reactions, looks at the paralysis in Washington on budgeting matters and wonders. I hope that we get our act together. I hope Congress starts to think of the bigger picture. I hope we are truly able to keep all options on the table, whether vis-à-vis Iran or Syria, without rushing to military action.
Make no mistake about it. If what we are seeing now is the beginning of a deep change in American foreign policy it will be bad for the Jews. Don’t believe for a second that there is an alternative to American leadership when it comes to Israel’s security, peace in the Middle East, safety and security for Jews in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Still, all in all, as I look to the Jewish future and the role of ADL on the occasion of our centennial, I am an optimist. I am an optimist on Israel. I am an optimist on American Jews. And, despite the concerns I have expressed here, I remain an optimist about America, about the good sense of the American people, the track record over the last 70 years, about its ability to overcome the obstacles to governance and to recognize that American leadership in the world is good for America, good for the world and good for the Jewish people.
This op-ed was originally delivered as part of remarks on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.