Responsibilities of a Nation

PRESIDENT George Bush seemed surprised that his words led Shiites and Kurds in Iraq to take up arms against Saddam Hussein and the Palestinians to look to the United States to restore ``their rights.'' No occupant of the White House should be surprised at the power of his rhetoric. Presidential statements are heard around the world in terms of America's declared principles, its power, and a belief that the US has the capacity to determine the course of events when it so chooses.

The list is long of US declarations and actions that have reinforced this view of America's capacity and responsibility. The creation of the American nation, itself, with its original form of government and its principles of equality and freedom inspired similar revolutions in other lands. Peoples around the world knew of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and of the Declaration of Independence.

Over the decades, and especially in the 20th century when America's power grew, statements and actions of presidents have created expectations that the US would work for freedom and democracy abroad: Woodrow Wilson's vision of the League of Nations and of ``self-determination,'' Harry Truman and Point Four and the Marshall Plan, John Kennedy's call for an American international role in his inaugural address; Jimmy Carter's strong espousal of human rights and his Middle East peace initiative at Camp Davi d, the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy under Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Bush's vision of ``a new world order.''

Compounding the impact of presidential statements were demands in Congress and from the public for the liberation of the European empires and, after World War II, for the release of the ``captive nations'' of Eastern Europe.

Presidential motives in each case were a mixture of a conscientious desire to respond to an international issue and the need to demonstrate action and leadership for domestic political reasons. But it seems few assumed that actions should match words. To individuals seeking aid and freedom, such statements suggested that the US not only encouraged them but also intended to support them. Where people believed this strongly, they identified with the American cause, often at great risk. This was especially so in the Middle East where an unshakable view exists that events are shaped by external manipulation.

Once the power of the former mandate and colonial powers faded, the US became, in the eyes of many, the chief manipulator, whether for good or ill. When Bush suggested that the people of Iraq should overthrow Saddam, Iraqis in Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk, concluded that Washington would help make this happen. When the president on March 6 spoke of the ``rights of the Palestinian people,'' in the minds of Palestinians he assumed the responsibility for pressuring Israel to restore these rights.

The US has done much in the world in support of its principles; effective policies have followed words. But even where this has happened, such as in the Marshall Plan in Europe, the actions served further to raise hopes that America would do the same thing elsewhere. Often the actions were military, but military conflicts except for the two world wars, have on many occasions left problems unresolved and hopes dashed.

Today policies that would match the hopes of others, whether for economic development, peace, freedom, or democracy, encounter the restraints in America of national will, limited resources, geopolitical realities, and the preference for the stability that comes through preserving the status quo. Combined with this is a growing feeling that Americans ``have done their part'' and that other, wealthier nations, can carry a greater share of the efforts to meet the world's security and economic needs. This a ttitude has undoubtedly been reinforced by the funding received from other nations to share the costs of the Gulf war.

Despite these constraints, however, American presidents and politicians continue to speak in ways that others interpret as commitments to take action. Certainly, the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq fled because of what Saddam did, but in the calculations of many were the expectations that, because of what the US president said, America would help. Sadly, the president and those around him did not appear to realize how their words would be interpreted in the chaos of postwar Iraq.

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