Small World: O, can you see an enemy?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The question for this Thursday’s debate is what is the quality most essential for a serious, successful government, popular at home and feared, loved or respected abroad?

Many Europeans will immediately chant, “An inspiring national anthem!” No American who has had to sit through four verses before a ball game will agree with them.

What about a colorful, eye-catching flag? Well, maybe, if it can be made into an attractive T-shirt or successfully face-painted.

Speaking of compelling attractiveness, isn’t a handsome leader a great advertisement or, one with a beautiful wife, or, as with America’s days of glory, a handsome couple. Well, yes, but beauty fades with age — as we all are aware.

We could continue this exploration into the abstract realm – impressive history, equal justice, progressive policies or, if you insist, conservative values. Too much fuel for over-heated debate down that trail.

The answer, I’m sure most politicians, academics and pundits would agree (if not out loud), is for a nation aspiring to greatness must have an enemy. Preferably, it will be a foe, whom your citizens can hate while much of the more or less neutral world will understand their bitterness. It should be an enemy who is threatening enough to generate fear and stand-our-ground courage among your people. Happily, it often happens, when your citizens are distracted by the looming enemy they won’t worry excessively about their domestic complaints.

You ask how some countries seem to succeed while maintaining friendly connections in their neighborhoods. Sweden, Costa Rica, Botswana or elements in Japan, for example, seem to thrive without hating, fearing or projecting strength. Rare species. To clarify one detail, an enemy, in my analysis, doesn’t have to be a nation state; it can be a non-state terrorist group or non-invited migrants fleeing bad times at home.

We skip lightly over the fact that the U.S. got by for decades shaking its fist at Cuba and similar dinky Latin governments. A loud trumpet of alarm can supplement the danger from a minor threat. For enemies during much of its history the United States had to make do with distant Europeans — Britain and Spain. Gaps of peace were filled in by hostilities with Mexico, Native Americans or Southerners. Then with World War I, we entered the major leagues, followed by even greater conflicts during WWII and the Cold War. There was a gap of calm for two decades, the twenties and thirties, but the aimless discontent of those years confirmed that peace just didn’t work for an aspiring Great Nation.

The Cold War was the golden period: two threatening superpowers against us and a bunch of proxy fights. When it ended and we had prevailed, the Nineties tempted us with fights against bad guys in Africa and the Balkans. We stayed on the sidelines, however, only teasing Iraq a bit but avoiding any serious engagements. George W. Bush fixed that: taking on two conflicts — Afghanistan and Iraq — and who knows what is to follow from those disasters?

The champion at cultivating enemies is, of course, Israel. No need to review its lifelong history of conflict with the Palestinians or the decades-long refusal to seek an end to that endless conflict’s illegal occupation of neighboring land. Israel’s massive popular hostility towards Iran — composed and continually chanted by Prime Minister Netanyahu and opinion leaders with few contradicting voices — is rare in world affairs. It was, after all, he who created the great fear of Tehran and then, when President Obama used adroit diplomacy to nullify the claimed nuclear threat, complained all the louder.

It was also Netanyahu, in the days of Saddam Hussein, let us not forget, who urged Washington, with the support of his loyal pens in the American media, into the invasion of Iraq. Instructive, isn’t it, that those same neocon voices are now urging the U.S. Congress to reject Obama’s diplomacy and leave in its place the threat of yet another war with a fearsome enemy in the Middle East.

Blessed are the peacemakers, they say, but then they don’t have to manage a restive, ambitious country. Constant, controlled tension is preferred as the consecrated policy for today’s political leaders.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please follow and like us: