James Madison, the Founding Father for whom our city is named, once famously wrote: "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded."
His commentary, published in April of 1795, added, "No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Despite the founder's wise words, for more than two centuries the United States has been almost continually on a battlefield somewhere in the world. Those who keep count of such things say that the only time we went more than five years without being at war someplace, somehow was between 1935 and 1940 at the height of the Great Depression. That includes the time from the Revolutionary War right through the multiple fronts we are battling on today.
Some question how is it then that we claim to be a peace-loving nation when we've constantly got American troops on battlefields. Some of our wars, most will admit, were unavoidable — the Revolutionary War, for instance, and World War II to save the world from a madman. But, in an excellent piece for The New York Times, Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt points out that all too many of our wars have only brought us more problems and, yes, more wars — a concept that our leaders never seem to understand.
Alarmed by President Donald Trump's goal to cut the State Department by 30 percent and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's failure to make appointments to key diplomatic posts, Walt points out that most of America's greatest foreign policy successes were at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.
"Think of the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country in 1803, or the formation of NATO and the Bretton Woods economic institutions, equally farsighted acts that enhanced American influence," he wrote. "Similarly, the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty slowed the spread of nuclear weapons and made it easier to monitor states with nuclear ambitions."
"The list goes on," he continued. "Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1972 tilted the balance of power in our favor and helped smooth the United States' exit from Vietnam; Jimmy Carter's stewardship of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty ended a conflict that had produced four wars since 1948. Adroit diplomacy managed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. More recently, patient negotiations led to an agreement with Iran that reversed its progress toward a nuclear bomb."
Contrast all that to our failures: Costly wars in Vietnam and excursions into countries like Libya have gained nothing for the U.S. Our decade-plus wars in the Mideast — Iraq being the most egregious — have spawned nothing but trouble, including the formation of al-Qaida and ISIS. Instead of being accepted as saviors, the United States has only fomented hate and derision.
Yet we're saddled now with an administration that wants to weaken our diplomatic role in the world and, just for good measure, rattle a few more sabers.
When, indeed, will we ever learn?
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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