The wrong side of history

Posted: Jan 22, 2005 12:00 AM

In the early days of World War II a group of influential people, including Charles Lindbergh, founded the ?America First Committee.? Members championed neutrality. In their view, we should guard our own shores, and let the rest of the world go its own way.

 They were wrong. It was the United States that would eventually lead the victory over fascism and craft the world we enjoy today. Luckily, after Pearl Harbor, the America Firsters quietly melted away.

These days, we?re at war again. And a somewhat different political movement seems to be brewing -- ?Blame America Firsters.? No matter what?s going on, these folks want to point the finger at the United States.

BAF was a small and much-mocked movement in the days immediately following Sept. 11. A handful of commentators wondered, ?Why do they hate us?? as if we had somehow done something to deserve the terrorism we suffered that day.

But lately the BAF movement seems to be quietly gaining strength. It popped up during Condoleezza Rice?s confirmation hearings. Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island pressed Rice on whether we should work harder to find ?common ground? with antagonistic countries. Chafee was disappointed because, ?in some of my questions, you seemed to reject that doctrine of finding common ground.?

?Obviously we need to look for common ground,? the soon-to-be Secretary of State answered. ?There is no reason that the United States has to have permanent enemies.? But she pointed out that other countries often aren?t interested in finding ?common ground? with us.

Getting specific, Chafee asked about Venezuela. Rice noted, ?We have, right now, a government in Venezuela that has been unconstructive in important ways.?

?And with Iran,? the senator wondered, ?is there any potential for finding common ground with Iran?? Rice testified, ?This is just a regime that has a really very different view of the Middle East and where the world is going than we do.?

Those answers didn?t satisfy Sen. Chafee. ?Given every opportunity to express even the slightest finding of that common ground, I find that you?ve instead fallen to accentuating and magnifying our differences,? he lectured.

Well, consider Chafee?s examples.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida recently returned from a trip to Venezuela with Chafee. ?We?ve got to keep our eyes on President Chavez,? Nelson warned. ?He told us one thing a week ago Monday and then, lo and behold, a whole different thing suddenly emerges after we left Caracas.? There?s simply no reason to bother looking for common ground with a dictator who won?t even level with us anyway.

As to Iran, on one plain we?ve got lots of ?common ground.? They need to sell plenty of oil, and we need to buy plenty of oil.

But as Rice put it, ?It?s really hard to find common ground with a government that thinks Israel should be extinguished. It?s difficult to find common ground with a government that is supporting Hezbollah and terrorist organizations that are determined to undermine the Middle East peace that we seek.?

We won?t strengthen our position with Iran by attempting to work with its dictatorial leaders. As proof, consider the British. The U.K. maintains a policy of ?engagement? with Iran. But that policy failed last June.

Iranian forces crossed their border into Iraq and seized eight British servicemen. The men were blindfolded, paraded before television cameras and forced to apologize. The British government had to negotiate the release of eight people who were being wrongly held.

Still, the British don?t plan to change course. ?I am in no doubt at all that our policy of engagement with the government of Iran is the best approach,? Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the time. Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon added, ?We have also made it clear that we do not expect a recurrence of this type of incident.? But it?s difficult to understand how showing weakness in the face of Iranian aggression will prevent future attacks or pay any long-term dividends.

Americans don?t have any problem with the Iranian people. They?d probably love to live in freedom, and we?d love to see that happen. Still, at this time, they?re governed by a group of leaders who?ve spent the last 20 years chanting, ?Death to America.?

Those leaders, like the leaders of our own ?America First? movement, are on the wrong side of history. The United States is a great force for good in the world, in spite of our occasional failures. It?s a pity that today?s ?Blame America Firsters? don?t always seem to realize that.