In 1815, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Not in our day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble. But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be."
Jefferson's prophecy has been fulfilled. His hope has not. The discrepancy is most glaring in questions of when to use military force to suppress foreign violence.
We need a consensus about when to shake the rod and what to do if no one trembles.
The search for consensus is troubled by contradictory impulses. When we have intervened - always with the best of intentions - we have generally failed to achieve our goals, leaving the people we were trying to help worse off.
This has happened in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia. We drove Iraq out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein remains in power while UN trade embargoes impoverish his people, and US and British warplanes subject his air defenses to routine daily attack.
Slobodan Milosevic continues to rule what is left of Yugoslavia while much of the country lies in ruins, and people who once lived peacefully together are killing each other. This suggests that policy ought to be biased against intervention: Leave bad enough alone.
Yet it is impossible to watch the horrible atrocities that regularly occur in the world without having an urge to do something.
Add this to a messianic streak in the American character. People thought it was divinely ordained manifest destiny to take half the territory of Mexico. President McKinley said he wanted the Philippines "to uplift and civilize and Christianize them."
President Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. President Coolidge said the president "is but an instrument in the hands of God." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called on Americans to "be the authors of the history of our age." And presidential nominee Robert Dole said, "We were placed here for a purpose, by a higher power."
The public ardor for the crusades suggested by these exhortations is apt to cool before the task is done. The problem is reconciling the crusading spirit with reality.
For starters, here are some points for consideration:
*Do no harm. Hippocrates' 2,400-year-old advice to physicians is pertinent for the world's most powerful country. As power increases, so does the capacity for harm. Is intervention going to trigger more of the violence we are trying to prevent?
*Don't go it alone. If it's not important enough for other people, it's probably not important enough for us either. International support is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.
Other countries have national interests that the US does not. One reason Germany supported intervention in Kosovo was to avoid a stream of refugees. This wasn't a factor for the US in Kosovo, but it was in Haiti.
*How many casualties are acceptable? The White House and Pentagon are almost paralyzed for fear casualties cause loss of public support. Fourteen casualties drove us out of Somalia. Some military officers think the aversion to casualties prolonged bombing and increased ethnic violence in Kosovo.
*Is intervention going to generate a long-term commitment? How long will the American people support it? Troops have already been in Bosnia longer than intended. Some NATO military officers are talking about 25 years in Kosovo.
*Don't put restrictions on troops. If they're going to be forced to stand by and watch violence, they might better have stayed home.
*Are we dealing with aggression and/or insurgency, or with a civil or religious war? It isn't always an easy distinction, but the former may justify intervention while the latter is to be avoided. Colombia, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka are good examples.
*Sanctions rarely work. Look at the results in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and Libya.
*Is there a real US national interest at stake, or are we just responding to humanitarian impulses?
These are ad hoc points, meant to be considered with respect to specific cases. There are too many unforeseeable contingencies to try to make a policy of general application. It has been easier to acquire the power that Jefferson envisaged than the wisdom for which he hoped.
*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society