In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, Sen. Mark Begich suggested President Barack Obama’s response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons last fall displayed weakness that emboldened Russian President Vladimir to move military forces into Crimea. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others joined the congressional chorus humming criticism of Obama’s foreign policy. And while talking tough toward America’s adversaries creates good theater, there may be valuable lessons to learn by considering the road less traveled.
Before we claim the high moral ground here, let’s recognize that Putin had the approval of his Parliament and is reported to be enjoying the highest approval rating he’s had in two years. Then bring in a little dose of humility, because America has its own recent disturbing example of presidential swagger.
In 2003, George W. Bush watched his polling numbers climb to over seventy percent as he commenced the invasion of the sovereign nation of Iraq. He had the backing of Congress, too. Sen. McCain was a cheerleader among the three-quarters of the senate that voted in favor of the resolution to use military force in Iraq. Only now we know that the basis of the invasion wasn’t true. The Iraqi leader possessed no weapons of mass destruction and posed no nuclear threat to America or Iraq’s neighboring countries.
Although Begich, Ayotte and Corker weren’t U.S. senators back then, this isn’t the first time they’ve taken a hard opposition to Obama’s diplomatic efforts. They’ve joined McCain and 54 other as co-sponsors of the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.” The bill claims the Iranians “could produce a sufficient quantity of weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in one to two months’ time” and calls on America to “stand with Israel” if it “is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program.”
The problem with talking tough against Iran at this stage is that only a month before the bill was presented on the senate floor, Obama reached the first stage of an agreement with Iran that halts progress and rolls back key aspects of the country’s nuclear program.
That’s not good enough for Begich though. “It’s good on one hand we’re having discussions with Iran,” Begich said in Juneau two weeks ago, “but I don’t trust them. I don’t trust anything they’re doing.”
However, the pack of senators he’s running with might consider a lost opportunity to extend trust to America’s most dangerous adversary at the start of the Cold War. On September 11, 1945, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson proposed to President Harold Truman that he share our newly discovered nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. He believed that was the only way to avoid an all-out nuclear arms race.
“The chief lesson I have learned in a long life,” Stimson wrote, “is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.” Stimson stood alone with his advice, and as history notes, Truman didn’t follow it. Over the next four decades the world drifted toward the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Before trust can be offered to anyone, we’re forced to recognize not just our vulnerability but the ways in which we are complicit in the conflict. It flips the question on its head and asks: Are we trustworthy?
There’s another lone voice from Alaska’s past that answers this. In 1965, Congress acted tough by passing the Gulf of Tokin Resolution in response to an attack of a U.S. naval ship that never happened. It led the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War. Ernest Gruening was one of only two senators to oppose the resolution.
A lifetime later we shouldn’t be putting our faith behind a pack of mistrusting, tough-talking senators. That’s never served America well. Plus, Putin and Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president, are leaders of nations significantly less dangerous than the Soviet Union under Stalin and deserve to be judged independent of their predecessors’ pasts.
I fully recognize there’s serious risks in trusting these still formidable adversaries, but imagining life as risk free is simply naïve. As the eminent psychologist James Hillman wrote, if we expect to live “where there is security and containment, where one cannot be hurt or let down, where what is pledged in words is forever binding, means really to be out of harm’s way and so to be out of real life.”
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.