Memorial Day is a holiday that is becoming culturally perplexing for many Americans. We instinctively know that thousands have given their lives and been wounded in service to their country, and when we try to imagine their heroism in horrific places, from the Battle of Trenton to Appomattox to Bataan, our throats swell and we become mute with profound respect. Although the passage of time has blurred the contemporaneously contentious nature of wars America has fought, it's clear that today's engagements don't enjoy the same level of civic support.
Beyond the fact that time has provided a more candid reckoning of past wars--which is to say a more unequivocal justification of them--another compelling reason for that disparity is how we view the nature of good and evil, coupled with a collective reticence to sacrifice our blood and treasure. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a seminal work titled "The End of History and the Last Man," which made the argument that human beings had reached the end of their ideological evolution, and that liberal democracy was its inevitable incarnation. That view, of course, was met strong counter-arguments in the ensuing years, which have seen the rise of radical Islam as well as Russia's recidivist impulses towards autocracy, mirroring that of China.
Unfortunately, the unfinished nature of our human narrative has been painfully punctuated with these realities at the precise moment when the historical consensus regarding good and evil is fraying. The fashionable introspection posited by the left, the kind that holds America to far higher standards than any other nation, conjures the argument for the moral equivalence among all nations. That leads us to the foreign policy corollary, which is the perennial argument regarding the presumed justification of U.S. interventions, whether they use 'soft' or 'hard' power, to either encourage democratic principles or topple manifestly hostile despots.
In this context the efficacy of military intervention is also being seriously questioned. One of the central tenants of President Obama's ascendancy is the alleged potency of diplomacy as a vital precursor to any threat of military action. It's truly not a matter of a nascent isolationism sweeping the land than it is the tacit conviction that the military option is wholly unsuited to the complexities America faces, from North Korea to Iran, which is to say, a forced conclusion is less convincing than one underwritten by persuasion and patience.
Although history belies the practical application of such arguments, they ought not be dismissed out of hand. Rather, it's what underlies them that is cause for concern. Implicit in Obama's approach to foreign policy is a summary rejection of the doctrine employed by every previous president, which is a parsing of geopolitical problems based on their relative intransigence. On one end we have China and Russia, ostensible if inconstant allies whose sketchy adherence to democratic principle are truly concerning; at the other end we have belligerent and unpredictable regimes such as North Korea and Iran.
The Obama doctrine's premise is that there's an effectively untried way to positively influence all of these relationships, one that employs incentives and disincentives based on an algorithm known only to him. This fundamental revision of common sense, one that presupposes the existence of an entirely new set of diplomatic tools, and one curiously undiscovered for the past two thousand years, is at once intriguing and deeply concerning. Among other peculiarities, it suggests that such patently evil men as Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are, in fact, acting rationally, defending their unique sense of justice against a world hostile and indifferent to its beliefs, as opposed to flouting international conventions and the will of the civilized world.
It's a fascinating, if somewhat academic argument, that is, one that can take us just so far. Because, among other reasons, it stipulates that the behavioral paradigm in these regimes is amenable to reasonable intercourse, if we could just break its abstruse code. That argument simply can't stand the test of history: If we examine regional conflicts that evolved into war, from Thermopylae to the Punic Wars to the Hundred Years War, and the two world wars last century, the theme is consistent. They each involve some combination of revanchist motivations and designs of economic or geographic hegemony.
We can dress them up in the vogue parlance of contemporary diplomatic parlor games, but the fundamentals are timeless and they apply no less persuasively with Iran than they did to Rome and Carthage in the Punic Wars. The difference is the Obamaesque propensity to a dangerous intellectual hubris that downgrades evil to the status of a misdemeanor while naively supposing a reasonableness on the part of tyrants, one that's conspicuous by its absence.
Therefore, as we celebrate the valor and heroism of those whose sacrifice provided the foundations of the freedoms we too often take for granted, let's not forget that evil is, in fact, timeless, and, although candid discussions with our adversaries are an important component of American foreign policy, in the end, the only language despots understand is the kind written in blood--their own.