Should America Really Be the Global Policeman?

News Abroad
tags: United States, The Day The Earth Stood Still, global policeman, interventionism

Ray Smock is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University and was Historian of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995.

Courtesy of the author.

In the 1951 version of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, a man from outer space named Klaatu comes to Earth in a flying saucer accompanied by Gort the fearsome robot with a laser beam head that can destroy whole worlds if he sees signs of military aggression. Appropriately, they land on the ellipse in Washington, D.C., close to the Washington Monument and the White House.

When this movie came out I was ten years old and I was agog over Gort. I still am. It is my all-time favorite movie. Some of the movie’s obvious messages were lost on me in 1951, but not completely. It was a movie about the dangers of Weapons of Mass Destruction, although we didn’t call them that then.

Klaatu comes to tell Earthlings that now that we had developed and used nuclear weapons we had better behave or Gort and robots like him would swoop down on us in their flying saucers and destroy our whole planet. This movie was released just six years after the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and a year before the first atmospheric test of the hydrogen bomb codenamed Ivy Mike. Over the decades that followed, Earthlings -- mostly in the Soviet Union and the United States -- would create 68,000 nuclear weapons.

Gort was programed to recognize when a nation or a planet had crossed the red line of unacceptable aggression. The question is how you control vile weapons of mass destruction and more importantly how you stop them from ever being used. Klaatu and Gort have never come back to Earth and we have been left on our own to figure this out.

Our solution was MAD -- Mutually Assured Destruction. If a foreign power nukes us, we will nuke them and nobody wins, not even the planet.

The three classes of WMDs are nuclear, chemical agent, and biological. Since World War I the nations of the world have agreed that gas warfare is hideously indiscriminate. Biological weapons once let loose could have dire unintended consequences that lasted for decades or longer and might not be limited to the enemy.

In the current crisis over the use of the nerve gas sarin in the Syrian civil war, gas makes no distinction between combatants trying to over throw Bashar al-Assad, or children sleeping in their beds. Gas is all about terror. Sarin even stays on the clothes of victims so it can poison those trying to help the victims.

The United States, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in combat, has since tried to limit the spread of such weapons and over time the Soviet Union and the United States, the two superpowers, found ways keep from blowing up the world and eventually started to dismantle frighteningly large numbers of weapons, even though thousands of nuclear warheads still exist. Today some estimates show about 17,000 nuclear warheads still in existence worldwide, with most in the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. has just over 5,000 still active. Nine countries have nukes. Four of the nine nuclear countries are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. and other nations are concerned that Iran is working on the development of nuclear bombs.

The United States has taken on the role of world policeman when it comes to WMDs. The fear of WMDs took us to war in Iraq, even though no such weapons existed there at the time of the U.S. invasion.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, with the possible blessing of Congress, are ready to attack Syria with cruise missiles and other high-tech weapons controlled from satellites in outer space as punishment for the Assad regime’s use of gas on its own people.

The question now before Congress, the Executive Branch, and the American people is: do we want to be the official Gort of planet Earth? Are we to be the robot that automatically punishes regimes anywhere on the planet that have the audacity and the lack of morals to go beyond the use of “conventional” weapons to kill their own citizens or the citizens of other nations?

Should this president and all future presidents of the United States have the power to unilaterally stop the use of WMDs? Does the United States alone define the red line that cannot be crossed?

It is a big question. In the case of Gort, the people of the inhabited worlds of our galaxy gave total power to the race of robots they created to stop all war in its tracks. People on these fictional planets lived in complete peace because war was too terrible to contemplate given Gort’s power to stop it. It was the ultimate MAD program.

But here on Earth, in real time in the year 2013, the president wants to bomb a few airport runways, knock off a few weapons storage facilities, and maybe disrupt air defense systems. This would be a mini-MAD program that would not be a Gort-like annihilation of Syria, but just a headache for its dictator. It sends a signal, a weak, “tailored” signal. It is Gort with his laser on low beam.

And what about the “lesser” powers on Earth in terms of military might? If WMDs are a moral issue affecting the whole planet why can’t these other nations step up to the plate and help find a solution that might involve something other than military power as punishment? Instead, the nations of the world stand by waiting to see how many sparks fly out of the head of the American Gort.

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