What We're Grappling with in Iraq Is Woodrow Wilson's Legacy
To understand what we are doing in Iraq, we have to go back to a war that is almost a hundred years old. In its day it was called The Great War. Now we call it World War I. No matter what we call it, this war forever changed America's relations with the rest of the world.
President George W. Bush has been castigated by some critics for failing to work with the United Nations in the war with Iraq. World War I was the first act of the ongoing drama of the United States' involvement with the world in the role of a great power. When Woodrow Wilson returned from the Paris Peace Conference and asked the Senate to ratify his decision to join the League of Nations, Americans began arguing about how we should relate to an international organization, whose noble goal was, among other things, to keep the peace. Wilson claimed that if we failed to follow his leadership, we would "break the heart of the world."
Wilson thought America should surrender a significant amount of her sovereignty to the League of Nations, which he considered his personal invention. He had largely written the "covenant" or charter himself. When he sought the Senate's approval, many senators, both liberals and conservatives, strongly disagreed. They insisted on reservations that would protect the Monroe Doctrine and America's right to decide for itself whether to wage war. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Senate and the American people to decide this question only after "sober second thought."
Lodge's argument prevailed. The Senate rejected Wilson's version of the League. In spite of pleas from cabinet members and leaders of his own party, the president refused to compromise. A second vote also failed but the grimly determined Wilson turned the 1920 presidential election into a "great and solemn referendum" on his version of the League. The Democrats lost in a stupendous landslide. The American people rejected Wilson's league. When Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry S. Truman, created the United Nations after World War II, they did their utmost to avoid Wilson's mistakes. Delegates to the UN were called ambassadors, stressing that the countries who sent them retained their sovereignty. Truman used his friendships with key senators to win overwhelming approval of the UN charter.
The politics of the Cold War soon disillusioned Americans with the UN as a body capable of arbitrating international disputes and avoiding war. The Communist empire relentlessly manipulated the UN's structure to its advantage. Within two years of its creation, Truman's joint chiefs of staff and his Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall, were telling him that "the ability of the United Nations...to protect, now, or hereafter, the security of the United States" was virtually nil. Henceforth, American presidents worked with the UN when possible but never allowed it to dictate American foreign policy.
What should we make of this unfinished drama? Historian Lloyd Gardner may have the best answer. He argues that when America intervened in World War I, it made a covenant with power. Painfully, with mistakes aplenty, the United States discovered power is at the heart of history. Because it was the strongest most prosperous nation on the globe, how it used its power was bound to have a large impact on the rest of the world.
At the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson and the United States discovered there were limitations to America's power. Other powerful nations simply refused to yield to Wilson's idealistic "fourteen points" (principles) for preserving peace. French premier Georges Clemenceau sneered that God had been satisfied with ten commandments. Additional limitations on America's power in 1918 resided in the tormented, hate-filled minds and hearts of the war-ravaged people of Europe, perhaps even in that universal idea of human nature itself. Still more limitations lay in the illusions of idealism -- Wilson's tendency to believe that noble slogans can be easily translated into meaningful realities.
Throughout the twentieth century, the United States' relations with the rest of the world have veered between idealism and an often harsh realism. In World War II we demanded unconditional surrender from Germany and Japan and endorsed the mass bombing of civilians in Germany and the use of atomic weapons in Japan to get it. Then we spent billions to revive these nations as prosperous democracies. Exactly how this great dichotomy between idealism and realism should be handled will always be debatable.
This is the lens through which we should view President George W. Bush's war with Iraq and its aftermath -- a lens painfully forged by the decisions of previous presidents. Because some presidents -- Wilson, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam -- failed to make the covenant work does not mean it is unworkable. It takes time and a readiness to mingle tough realism with idealism -- but the free societies of South Korea and the Philippines, and the democracies of Germany and Japan are proof that America's covenant with power can become a creative force for a peaceful world.
comments powered by Disqus
NYGuy - 9/19/2003
Thank you for giving us the true reasons for why we are in Iraq. You did not go back to the Roman days, but you provided an historical prospective for this century.
As we saw on the NYSE, greed dominates among those elitists in power and they think only of themselves and their friends. While it is unfortuneate that many such greedy elitists died in the world trade center, although I have heard the Jews took off that day, I guess those at the top do not have the compansion for their friends that they use in their campaign slogans. And of course they have less for the working people who they regard as "cannon fodder."
The US invasion of Iraq answers not to the lofty arguments of “covenants with power to create creative forces” etc. It answers to the Bush administration’s policy of favouring Israel, its belief that more controllable oil sources are needed, the fact that the majority of the Bush administration players despise the Iraqi regime (he tried to kill my Dad, Rumsfeld’s letter to Pres. Clinton, Weekly Standard article, etc.) and the abominable, crass use of the 9/11 tragedies for political purposes, trying to gift wrap Iraq as part of the war on the 9/11 terrorists."
Thank you we need people like you to keep us on track. Oh, you forgot, GW is so dumb he did not even know what those behind the throne were doing to.
NYGuy - 9/18/2003
Thank you Mr.Fleming for not engaging in political spin and ending with this insightful comment.
"This is the lens through which we should view President George W. Bush's war with Iraq and its aftermath -- a lens painfully forged by the decisions of previous presidents. Because some presidents -- Wilson, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam -- failed to make the covenant work does not mean it is unworkable. It takes time and a readiness to mingle tough realism with idealism -- but the free societies of South Korea and the Philippines, and the democracies of Germany and Japan are proof that America's covenant with power can become a creative force for a peaceful world."
We are now faced with making projections based on using either a static analysis of the past or do we use a dynamic analysis that takes into consideration emerging longer term trends that effect not only the U. S. policies but also the rest of the world.
In my mind we must consider the explosive change in technology, particularly the computer, electronics and telecommunication industry. These changes have been so dramatic over such a short period of time that it is easy to overlook them. Their effect is in the early stages of a revolution of which we are only now beginning to see its impact for the world and its future. Not only is this revolution increasing communication around the world, but also the speed with which communications are beng transmitted.
Meanwhile, the realization of what happened to the twin towers has changed the world view of it security. Dropping two 110 story buildings in hours has never been achieved before and magnifies the threat potential of terrorism for the entire world.
This act was accomplished because of terrorist acts that had gone unchecked around the world for a long time. And, the entire world is now more insecure for its safety and future. And it also know that no one is immune if terrorism is allowed to go unchecked and move into the next stage of nuclear and biological attacks.
Althought each country has to play out its hand, I doubt if many are unmindful of this longer term threat to themselves and their economies and the well being of its citizens and will fail to take actions to reduce and eliminate it. They also understand the upside to stopping it.
On the economic front, for example, if we look at China we see a mighty nation that is trying to come into the 21th century by trying to spur its economic growth which must now depend on foreign trade since internal consumption is not enough to achieve the growth it wants. Should they permit terrorism, particularly nuclear and biological threats to escalate and continue unchecked, it could seriously curtail their plans to be a larger force in the world economy and politics. To allow terrorism to flourish anywhere would also hurt their foreign trade. This scrip is true of many other countries in the world.
Meanwhile, the U. S. is now beginning to lose about 1.0 million jobs a year as they outsource these jobs to India, Pakistan, etc. So interrelations, or parternering is emerging with the workers in some of these countries which will increase the demands for world stability to prevent revolutions at home.
For these trends to be maintained a stable world is needed to permit world trade, and help meet the growing needs of each company's consumer, (spurred on by telecommunications products advertised around the world). To accomplish country goals and meet the growing consumer needs of their population, terrorism fanatics cannot be permitted to flourish.
I believe their is a recognition of the above mentioned changes, and many others, as well as the need for leadership in meeting this challenge. The U. S. has taken a big step in this effort but unfortuneately the discussion changes from real needs to political spin such as Empire building, poor planning, GW is stupid, a bungler and a failure. It is my believe that others view our actions more favorably and will follow and support us with men and materials. It won't happen overnight, but "their is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come".
Gus Moner - 9/14/2003
The author’s perspective is a valid one, especially as regards the role of the US in the failure of the League of Nations, the flawed peace settlement that emerged when the allies realised they each had different war aims, and I would add the prism of the failure to use and retain the goodwill and power earned through US bloodshed. I enjoyed reading the piece, although something about it troubled me and I could not at first sort it out. Later, I realised that I disagree that the issues raised in the article can be traceable to the attack on Iraq. Mr Fleming makes his case about US power well, and the fault, as I see it, lies in trying to make the US-Iraqi link here.
The US invasion of Iraq answers not to the lofty arguments of “covenants with power to create creative forces” etc. It answers to the Bush administration’s policy of favouring Israel, its belief that more controllable oil sources are needed, the fact that the majority of the Bush administration players despise the Iraqi regime (he tried to kill my Dad, Rumsfeld’s letter to Pres. Clinton, Weekly Standard article, etc.) and the abominable, crass use of the 9/11 tragedies for political purposes, trying to gift wrap Iraq as part of the war on the 9/11 terrorists.
Iraq exists because of the way the UK and France divided up the Ottoman lands. Taking three provinces in Mesopotamia to satisfy a sheik and dividing off Palestine to satisfy promises to the French, Jews and the Hashemites invented another four lands from Syria- Palestine and Trans-Jordan (now Jordan), Lebanon and Syria. Therein lies what we are really grappling with.
Significant US involvement in Iraq began after WWII, not WWI.
Let no one be fooled here. One cannot argue that the author’s comments regarding “the free societies of South Korea and the Philippines, and the democracies of Germany and Japan are proof that America's covenant with power can become a creative force for a peaceful world” are wrong. They are examples of successes. However, likewise, the same covenant can be seen to have failed in so many other places, we all know them, I shan’t even begin to name them.
Another place where someday historians might argue the US’ Iraqi adventure began was on the fateful summer day in 1989 when, according to then National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski the US created the jihad in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union (on July 3, 1979), almost six months before the Soviet invasion of December 24, 1979 (according to the official version, often repeated on this site by the government’s men, the CIA only started helping the mujahideen in 1980).
The political turmoil in the always rough and tumble Afghan world was troubling the USSR, and it was meddling in Afghan politics. Pakistan was a US ally, and both were in turn troubled by the spectre of the old Russo-British “Great Game” and the possibility that without the UK or another major power about the neighbourhood, the USSR might have another go at Afghanistan. Given the debacle looming in Iran, "secretly" the US acted.
As an appnedix, to the US/CIA claim that they never helped set up Osama, when Pakistani military intelligence wanted a Saudi prince to direct the Afghan jihad, there were no takers. Saudi Arabia's rulers then recommended one of the heirs of a rich family very close to the monarchy - none other than Osama bin Laden. Osama arrived in Peshawar just in time to listen to Zbig - then Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser - manifest his full support for the jihad.
bertram wyatt-brown - 9/10/2003
This is a fine piece and so far I can tell accurate. However, "making the world safe democracy" involves more than good intentions, as I am sure Thoams Fleming knows. The Wilsonian phrase, which he does not mention, indicated a foreign policy that strikes anyone today as naive and all but impossible to achieve. Without an appreciation of the cultures of those countries we seek to remake in our own image, we are most likely doomed to grave disappointment if not worse. Often an analogy of Iraqi and Afghanistani reconstructions with those of Japan and Germany after WWII is cited. But that idea fails to take into account that both the Germans and Japanese had a prior parliamentary experience, if not a fully realized democracy. Germany and Japan were thoroughly industrialized, and both to greater or lesser degree secularized in ways not to be found in the honor-bound cultures of the Islamic Middle East.
To be sure, it is evident that there are Iraqis with a western outlook but hundreds of thousands of them are scarcely eager to become American-like, as it were, and lose their cultural heritage, however benighted we might think that choice to be. Usually our efforts at refashioning countries have not worked--not in the American South after the Civil War, nor in Wilson's incursions into Mexico, and various later interventions in Latin America, Haiti being the most recent. Most vexing is the question of the costs of reconstruction for the return on the enormous investment and how that relats to expenditures at home. Contrary to Pentagon analogies, we have too often abandoned these grand scenarios as the public wearies of the human cost and ambiguous results, and greadually draws back from the finanicial price.
Nonetheless, I share the author's hope--maybe hope against hope--that this time we will get it right despite a very mixed record from the past.
F.H.THOMAS - 9/9/2003
Thank you, kind sir, for wonderful primary research, a great sense of political events, and terrific prose. Your "WW I" was the best read of the year, in my humble opinion.
I have a personal interest in that horrible war, which spoiled the rest of the 20th century for everyone and gave my blessed father 5 wounds. He could not talk about it, which was saying something for him. He was at Chateau-Thierry, and should not have survived.
By the way, another wonderfully researched piece is Moser's the "Myth of the Great War", in case you missed it. His research included counting names on the monuments, a great way to get around the slick lying of British and French propagandists.
Richard Thompson - 9/9/2003
Mr. Fleming is a great example of how HNN should work: an accomplished author trying to give historical context to an current problem. He does so without the political animus so common on this page. It probably has something to do with his age. I enjoyed his recent appearance on C-Span where he talked about his new book on WWI, and I recall enjoying an earlier appearance which focused on a book he did on WWII. Please, Mr. Fleming, continue to give the rest of us an example of scholarship combined with good manners.
- Climate of Change: The Catholic Church's Dance With Science
- Sacrificed Humans Discovered Among Prehistoric Tombs
- Nazis Triumph Over Communists in Ukraine
- Obits for Happy Rockefeller blamed her for his political decline. Don’t believe it.
- Historian investigates claim that Bugsy Siegel wanted to kill Goring
- NYT hosts debate including Eric Foner: How Americans should remember Reconstruction
- William Leuchtenburg says historians and the media have been too hard on Obama
- Hugh Ambrose, historian who helped develop WWII Museum, dead at 48
- Historian discounts claim that Churchill and other British PM's were gay
- Nick Bunker Wins $50,000 2015 George Washington Book Prize