By Ira Chernus: Will the Global Policeman Hang Up His Badge?
"I didn't set a red line", Barack Obama now insists. "The world set a red line." It's a nice effort by the White House spinnmeisters. But I think the president was far more honest about his motives back on August 31, when he told the world: "We are the United States of America, Out of the ashes of world war, we built am international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. This nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities. Now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments." The message was coded, bit easy enough to enforce the rules of the international order, because we built that order. The rules we made are the red line. Syria crossed them. Now Syria must pay, if only to prove that the U.S. is a credible enforcer, that, as Obama concluded, "We do what we say." Obama's reference to the ashes of World War II is the key to the code, and to his hawkish Syria policy. Back in 1942, when the fires of the war were still burning white hot, Franklin D. Roosevelt was telling people quite privately about his utopian vision for lasting peace on earth. The story was quite simple: Nations go to war only if they have the weapons to do it. Take away their weapons, and presto! no more war. Eternal peace would let the United States go on freely trading with, and profiting from, every nation on earth forever. Of course someone had to be strong enough to take away all those weapons and make sure no one else could obtain new ones. So four nations would be exempt from the command to disarm. The U.S., Britain, Russia, and China would be the world's "four policemen," as FDR called them, each enforcing the rules in their own part of the world. However "by 1944 Roosevelt's musings about the four world policemen had faded into the background," as Martin Sherwin wrote in A World Destroyed, his classic history of how the atomic bomb reshaped world diplomacy in the 1940s. FDR was getting encouraging reports from the Manhattan Project and growing optimistic that the United States would have soon an atomic bomb. The fateful decision he made was to share the bomb and knowledge of how to make it only with Britain and not with any other nation, including, most importantly, Russia. FDR was misled into thinking that the U.S. and Britain could keep an atomic monopoly for two decades or more. So, he assumed, there would actually be only two policemen. "The underlying idea" of his original plan, as Sherwin wrote, "the concept of guaranteeing world peace by amassing of overwhelming military power, remained a prominent feature of his postwar plans." After Roosevelt's death, the Truman administration made that concept the most prominent feature of America's postwar plan, the international order that, as Obama said, the U.S. built out of the ashes of world war. Harry Truman came increasingly under the sway of cold war hawks, who turned back all efforts to cooperate with the Soviets o anything related to the bomb. Our national commitment, the responsibility we awarded ourselves in 1945, was to enforce the new world order and keep the peace by brandishing the bomb, or as Truman called it "the hammer." Its seemingly infinite power, wielded by an infinitely self-righteous nation, made it all too easy to feel like America could, and should, play the role of God in world affairs.