Dictator Bashar Assad of Syria is butchering his people, to include children, while the United States chooses to look away. The United States, a country that was known for its compassion, with a history of coming to the aid of the oppressed and downtrodden, has turned away from the values that have defined two centuries of fighting….fighting for others. World Wars I and II; the Berlin Air Lift, the Korean War; Kosovo…the list goes on and on of conflicts the U.S. entered into where the freedom of other countries was in more peril than our own but where we felt compelled to fight nonetheless. Countries such as Germany, Japan, Korea, Taiwan(the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan), and dozens of countries in Europe are free today because the U.S. believed that fighting and standing up for freedom was a worthwhile cause. Americans were born free and we shook off the yoke of oppression on our own because we chose freedom. We have felt compelled ever since our founding to stand up for those that are oppressed.
Today, U.S. foreign policy is decidedly cautious and reluctant to even make a statement in the cause of freedom and democracy. However, history shows that allowing tyrannies to fester unchecked is decidedly against U.S. interests. Whereas the current administration naively thinks getting involved somehow in the Syrian nightmare can in no way be in our interests, one thing is sure, allowing the tyranny of Assad to continue is a decisive decision to compromise the legacy and core values of who we are as a nation. There can be no greater national interest than to preserve our identity and heritage of freedom for it is the bedrock that defines us and separates us from the intolerance and oppressive systems we abhor.
Diplomats and policy makers justifiably focus on concrete national interests when making foreign policy decisions. President Truman did not commit U.S. forces into the Korean War because the United States just wanted to take a moral stand against tyranny and aggression. Immediately following World War II, the Soviet Union had kicked off the cold war by attempting to gobble up all of Europe and was only prevented from doing so by the United States . But the Soviet Union wasn’t just focusing on Europe, Communism had a global objective and so every opportunity was open for exploitation. When Kim Il-Sung asked Josef Stalin for the green light to attack South Korea, Kruschev gave his approval and thus began the Korean War, a war the U.S. did not provoke or seek. However, despite the fact that Korea had no resources of importance to the United States, the stakes were clear; if the U.S. let Korea fall, a precedent would have be set and U.S. credibility with her allies would be destroyed. If Korea fell, who would be next, Turkey? Iran? Ultimately, intervention in Korea was a case of foreign policy in the classical realism context. The U.S. acted out of self interest and was ultimately successful as the Truman Doctrine was born; effectively putting a halt to unbridled Soviet aggression and would end with the final fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But in the world of foreign policy and human endeavors, actions taken in pursuit of a singular goal often have far reaching and, perhaps, unexpected consequences. Those policy makers and the servicemen who fought in the Korean War were probably least concerned with the long term consequences of their actions on the bloody ravines and hills of Korea over fifty years ago. But today, Korea stands as a bulwark of democracy and economic freedom thanks to the blood of U.S. servicemen. Similarly, Generals MacArthur and Marshall probably had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish with post-war Germany and Japan; but neither would have predicted that the final outcome of their efforts to help rebuild Japan and Germany would result in the creation of the 2nd and 3rd largest economies in the world (until China overtook both in 2010). The lessons of unforeseen consequences should ring loudly for policy makers today.
An interesting historical ‘what if’ would be to contemplate what Truman would have done if there had been no Soviet Union acting behind the scenes in the Korean War. Without the need to check the aggressive foreign policy of the Soviet Union, it would not have been obvious that intervening in Korea would have been in the interests of the U.S. If circumstances had been different and Truman had not gotten the U.S. involved in the Korean War; Korea might be a single, united country today, a country cloaked in darkness and oppression due to our choice to restrain ourselves because Korea was not in our ‘national interests’….how wrong we would have been.
Today, South Korea is the 15th largest economy in the world and the seventh largest trading partner with the United States. However, a statistic that cannot be measured is how many millions of South Korean children have and will grow up free with the opportunity to realize their dreams due to the decision of one nation to fight on their behalf decades ago. Because of Soviet aggression, it was in the national interest of the United States to intervene in the Korean peninsula in 1950. What President Truman and other policy makers didn’t realize at the time was that it is always in the interest of the United States to stand against oppression and tyranny no matter how localized the tempest.
As Dictator Assad continues to slaughter his children, unlike in 1950, the United States, with the most powerful military in the world, stands in the shadows, like a coward pretending not to see the bully beating in the face of a child. When one chooses to fight for those oppressed and downtrodden, often the consequences are of lesser importance than the compulsion to be true to our heritage of freedom. Of course, we don’t know the long term consequences of intervention in Syria…..just like we didn’t know the long term consequences years ago, on a frozen peninsula in the Yellow Sea.