We've finally consigned another election campaign to the history books. How we judge it later may be very different from how we see it today. Perceptions are influenced, sometimes wildly, by the passions of partisanship. Current events change with the times, so to speak, along with theories to interpret events, and especially in foreign affairs.
Foreign policy, usually the preserve of wonks, actually became an issue in the campaign just past, with the focus narrowly limited to the war on terrorism. The war on terror was probably the single most important factor to voters this week. It's a complicated world, and the president and his men (and women) have to map a path that reaches far beyond terrorism. How do we see ourselves in the mix of nations?
At the end of the 20th century, an imaginary character became a frequent visitor to wonk conversations, with the United States compared to Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Jonathan Swift's classic "Gulliver's Travels," who finds himself sunk in the sand on a beach in the kingdom of Lilliput, whose tiny inhabitants have tied him down with threads and pegs. Gulliver can hardly move.
"In this telling, the international community - that comfortable euphemism for the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court and other U.N. agencies and the massed ranks of Non-Governmental Organizations - sought to constrain America's freedom of action in a web of international laws, regulations and treaties such as the Kyoto accords," writes John O'Sullivan in New Criterion magazine. These Lilliputians have also been called "Tranzi's," the hip jargon for transnational organizations that seek to impose participation in "global governance," to impose "global tests" that serve the interests of "the international community" and not ours.
The Lilliputians as invented by Swift are little men marked by moral pettiness, trivializing pretense and obsession with pompous "points of honor." The United States has acted in accord with the Lilliputians in certain acts of humanity, where common interests meet, but the Lilliputians have generally tried to constrain Gulliver through propaganda and the contrived pressure of public opinion. Gulliver was unbound by 9/11, as John O'Sullivan notes, but "Gulliver's Travels" has since become "Gulliver's Travails."
Gulliver unbound means that the United States after 9/11 could make an end run around the Lilliputians to appeal to coalitions of the willing to help in the fight against evil in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the United Nations or other international groups would not approve, independent nations could become allies in important ways: by recognizing the specific threat, supporting our approach to resolving it and by contributing resources. George W. Bush added a fourth component, introducing democracy in the Arab and Muslim world where self-government is an alien concept.
Gulliver thus becomes considerably bolder and more aggressive than Swift imagined. Swift himself was a deeply devout Christian, and did not believe, as many of his contemporaries of the Enlightenment did, that man can on his own transcend human limitations. Swift appealed to the moral and spiritual qualities - in a word, faith - that separate man from beast and enable him to rise above his animal nature. The Enlightenment never lived up to its promise that man could become perfect, or even move very far toward perfectibility. The Nazis and now the Islamists have proved that in our own era.
If we are to see America as Gulliver among Lilliputians, Gulliver should be perceived as an awkward, imperfect, but gentle giant who must not allow those with Lilliputian agendas to tie us down. We no longer have the optimism we felt when the statue of Saddam Hussein came tumbling down in Baghdad. The radical Iraqi insurgence is more widespread than we anticipated, perhaps because we eased the pressure in places like Fallujah in deference to the Lilliputians. Nevertheless, the Iraqi people are better off for our intervention. They have been freed from a dictator whose brutality rivals any in history. The Iraqis can speak freely, read and write freely and are pressing toward authentic elections.
Our own interests have been served. Gulliver unbound fosters democracy and pursues the war against Islamist terrorism, with no help from the Lilliputians. But attitudes and international organizations can change. Many European would bypass the U.N. if their own interests weighed in the balance. If Gulliver indulged no Utopian hopes, as one critic of Swift notes, "he also never gave way to cheap cynicism."