Friday, February 14, 2003

OF WRITS AND GUNS: The great debate between Americans who think the threat of force gets in the way of diplomacy, and those who think it makes diplomacy work, began, appropriately, at the beginning of the American Republic. The debate began with the Anti-Federalists, who became the Republicans, who more or less became the modern Democratic Party, who condemned President John Adams for responding to French aggression on the high seas by sending a diplomatic mission to seek peace -- and building a navy in case of war. The French began their revolution in 1789, which quickly turned into a preview of the great, wicked, bloody totalitarian revolutions of the twentieth century. This set off yet another war between France and Great Britain who, not highly valuing the rights of neutrals on the high seas, began preying on American shipping. Yet, having just seen his country through one terrible war with a European power and just begun a new constitutional government, President Washington determined to stay out of the European war. The Jay Treaty, by which American promised to let British creditors sue on their debts in federal courts in exchange for the British getting out of the Old Northwest, bought some measure of peace with Great Britain. But France interpreted the Treaty as a de facto alliance with Great Britain, and redoubled its depredations on American shipping, so that by the time John Adams became President, America and France were at war in all but name. And it was a pretty one-sided war at that, because the United States didn't have a Navy to speak of. Despite French provocation, President Adams remained determined to make peace with France. Yet the French made an honorable peace impossible, refusing to recognize our emissaries (and later demanding they pay bribes to be heard). Frustrated, President Adams called a special session of Congress and proposed a new diplomatic initiative, but this time backed by the credible threat of force. Simply put, Adams proposed that the United States continue to walk softly, but pick up a big stick along the way. The Republicans were appalled. Republicans, like Jefferson, had hailed the French Revolution as the offspring of the American and hoped that the France juggernaut would destroy Great Britain (while the Federalists, like Adams, were appalled by the bloodiness and depravity of the French revolutionaries, the democratic tyranny that had replaced the absolute monarchy, and, more to the point, the fact that the French were seizing American ships, killing and imprisoning American citizens, and insulting the honor, dignity, and sovereignty of the United States). The Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson, wanted peace with France at any cost, saw a military build up as an obstacle to diplomacy and a dangerous waste of money, and railed against Adams as a warmonger and a madman. But President Adams persisted, ignoring both the Republican demands to respond to continued French provocations with begging, pleading, and cajoling and the Federalists' demands to declare war on France and form and alliance with Great Britain. Instead, President Adams began outfitting a small navy, as well as American merchantmen with guns, and dispatched a new diplomatic mission to express his country's willingness to make peace and readiness to make war. It worked, at least temporarily; the French finally dealt with the American delegation and agreed to some semblance of peace (although France and Great Britain would continue to abuse American shipping until 1815, when Britain ended its war with the United States and Napolean's defeat at Waterloo ended the long continental war). There really is nothing new under the sun. When (mainly) Democrats and other anti-war politicians criticize President Bush for not "doing more" to win the support of our allies, for "rushing" to war, for not waiting until France and Germany bestow their favor on American foreign policy, they are repeating the mistake of President Adams' Republican opponents, believing that words and action, peace and war, are mutually exclusive options. In fact, they're complementary. Diplomacy consists of words, and words get their value from action or the credible promise of action. Writs don't run unless backed by men with guns. President Adams knew that, as does President Bush. They know that official edicts do not have inherent moral value. Civilized people may obey the law because they believe it's morally right to, but they have imbued those laws with moral value by vindicating them at the barrel of a gun and the end of rope. Without that vindication by action, words have no moral credit. At best they're bluffs, at worst blatant lies. Which is why, without any credible threat of war, the Security Council's many, many Iraqi-disarmament resolutions have become lies, and absurd lies at that, because their demands for disarmament and promises of "grave consequences" aren't even valuable as bluffs -- no one believes them, anymore than they believe Iraqi legislation "outlawing" weapons of mass destruction. So when anti-war politicians and countries like France and Germany demand that the United States abandon even the threat of war, what they really demand is that the UN perpetuate its dishonesty and impotence. And when the United States and Great Britain demand that the Security Council vindicate its own edicts with war, what they really demand is that the United Nations speak the truth and regain some measure of moral authority, or else quit talking. Thus the delicious irony: the "unilateralist" United States and its allies, who supposedly snub and undermine international institutions like the United Nation, are the only ones who want to take them seriously.

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