When assessing US foreign policy it is important to remember that America has often intervened around the globe, and is unique in seeking instantly to withdraw thereafter.
It withdrew from Europe after the two world wars, and from Korea, Japan, and (wrongly) Kuwait and Iraq last time round. The Americans tried to withdraw from Vietnam, having established what they believed to be a friendly regime in the South. Of course, the Americans do not withdraw, as a rule, until securing a settlement in their own favour. But such a settlement, they believe, will be one in which the people of the countries involved have acquired the right to elect their own governments. It is very difficult to object to a policy of intervention, when the intention is not to enslave a foreign people, but to liberate them.
Of course, Americans are bluff optimists, often insensitive to history, to local culture, to traditional allegiances and to the balance of power. This may mean that things are less stable after an American intervention than before - as was Europe after Woodrow Wilson’s input into the Treaty of Versailles.
But compare the Soviets in Ethiopia and North Yemen, in Eastern Europe or the Baltics; compare the Chinese in Tibet or the Syrians in Lebanon.
The vices of the USA are always before us; but the virtues are not sufficiently remembered.
America attracts blame because it responds to blame. Criticism of the Soviet Union was always met with a blank wall of indifference, and in any case could not be publicly voiced within the Soviet Empire itself. Hence, during the Cold War, the US was continually singled out as the source of conflict - notably by people on the Left, who often turned a blind, or at any rate myopic, eye, as did Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm to name but two, to the incredible and still unatoned-for crimes of the Soviet Communist Party.
With tyrannical regimes there is no point in criticism from outside, and death or imprisonment is the reward of criticism from inside. That is why intellectuals brought up under tyrannies end up in the USA. It is the one place where they can criticize freely, not just the countries they have fled from, but the country which has offered them refuge. In the face of virtues like these, the Chomskian and Pilgerish criticisms of US foreign policy begin to look, to say the least, one-sided.
US foreign policy isn’t always right. But it emerges from a rational process - one in which criticism is permitted, and accountability assumed. The foreign policies of North Korea and Iraq issue from no such rational process: which is one reason for using force in order to prevent them from issuing at all.
Originally published as part of a debate on 12 January 2003 Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War: Pt. 1.