Maybe American lawmakers want to look weak and unimportant. If so, they’re certainly free to do so. But they shouldn’t drag the international prestige of the entire country down to that level.
For example, the Senate plans to debate a “nonbinding” resolution that says President Bush’s plan to send some 21,000 more troops to Iraq is “not in the national interest.” And this resolution is expected to pass.
Wow -- there’s some leadership. Our lawmakers are getting set to say they oppose a policy, but they’re not prepared to do anything to change that policy. Instead of really debating the war in Iraq, our lawmakers will be debating a war in a vacuum. Instead of charting a way forward, they’ll chat senselessly about doing nothing.
Could they possibly make themselves look weaker in the eyes of the world? And there’s a real danger in looking weak. As George Washington said, “there is a rank due to the United States among nations, which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by a reputation of weakness.”
That’s a theme Robert Kagan returns to again and again in his new book, “Dangerous Nation,” about American foreign policy up to 1900. Kagan notes that when “other nations believed the United States lacked the power to make good on its commitments, they were more likely to raise a challenge, even in the Western Hemisphere.”
That’s clearly still true today. When the United States seems weak, we invite attacks. This is already happening in Iraq, where Iran is building its reputation at our expense.
We know, for example, that Iran is arming terrorist groups and supporting attacks on U.S. forces. In fact, Iran is helping both Shia and Sunni Muslims, which has helped generate a wider, deadlier war in Iraq.
John Negroponte, President Bush’s pick to be deputy secretary of state, recently underscored Kagan’s point when he told a Senate committee, “If [the Iranians] feel that they can continue with this kind of activity with impunity, that will be harmful to the security of Iraq and to our interests in that country.” Yet we haven’t done anything about it except issue empty threats, such as this one from Sen. Barack Obama, a likely Democratic presidential contender: “If the Iranians and Syrians think they can use Iraq as another Afghanistan or a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries, they are badly mistaken. It is in our national interest to prevent this from happening.”
That’s true enough, but if our enemies watch us withdraw from Iraq, as the senator wants us to do, those enemies are going to think they forced us to withdraw. They’ll see that as a great victory over the United States. Our enemies will be emboldened, not frightened.