Idealism or pragmatism? |

Idealism or pragmatism?

Here’s a question I would love to see debated in the Letters to the Editor section of the Vail Daily: When is it prudent for a nation to eschew its moral ideals in pursuit of the greater long-term benefits of the country? A quick review of three specific instances in American history may help guide the discussion:It can safely be said that without French assistance during the Revolutionary War, it’s highly doubtful George Washington’s rag-tag army could have prevailed against the British, the mightiest empire on earth.Doesn’t it seem logical that at the turn of the 18th century, American sympathies would lie with France in its war with Britain? Not only were the French vital to our independence, but they had just engaged in their own revolution predicated on similar principles.However, by 1800 our nation’s economy was almost totally dependent on Britain. The British were the major market for our goods, and they controlled the shipping lanes to Europe. So whatever moral inclination George Washington may have had toward France, he also understood that he must avoid involvement with its revolutionary regime, lest he risk conflict with Britain. So much for moral idealism and gratitude.American foreign policy has always been intertwined with pragmatism. During World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt allied himself with perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all-time: Josef Stalin. At the time, there were many outspoken critics – including the American Catholic Church – of FDR’s policy of alignment with the communists but what choice did Roosevelt really have? Had he not supported Stalin’s regime, the Nazis likely would have won the war.A seeming paradox, Roosevelt (and Churchill) instinctively understood that only through an alliance with the communist dictator could we hope to preserve democracy in the Western hemisphere. Those voicing opposition to an alliance with Stalin on moral grounds were principled in their beliefs, but the threat to democracy was so great that pragmatism won out over idealism. At the height of the Cold War, the United States again found itself in an uncertain position. American global influence was receding partially due to the difficulty in meeting our gold redemption obligations, Vietnam was a quagmire, and the Soviet Union appeared to reap one geopolitical victory after another. But in February 1972, President Richard Nixon ended decades of mutual estrangement with China’s brutal regime because he saw an opportunity in the deteriorating relationship between the Chinese and the Soviets. By re-establishing relations with China, the United States capitalized on the existing schism between the two communist giants and was able to drive a geopolitical wedge between our archrivals.While each of the aforementioned choices had its critics, it’s difficult to see how Washington, FDR or Nixon could have chosen differently – implying that the pursuit of political principle is possible only if one is willing to look at geopolitical realities over the long term. At the dawn of the 21st century, America is again faced with choices that in the near term may require departure from principle. Such a situation is presenting itself in Iraq, where early blunders have come home to roost. And the two nations with the greatest geopolitical stake in Iraq are the United States and Iran. While Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatens and postures about nuclear weapons, those knowledgeable with the true power structure in Iran understand that the real authority there rests with its mullahs. Nothing happens in Tehran without them sanctioning it first. And as proffered by foreign policy expert Dr. George Friedman, the primary issue between the United States and Iran’s mullahs is not nuclear weapons, it’s Iraq.There are a lot of moving pieces in the region. Perhaps the best hope for stability in Iraq lies in making a deal with Iran, short of nuclear accommodation. Just as JFK promised Nikita Khrushchev not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets’ pledge to remove their ICBMs from that island in 1962, perhaps this administration can offer the Iranians a quid pro quo for their influence with Iraq’s militant Shiites. Making a deal with Iran will open the administration to further criticism. But then, dealing with “The Great Satan” is sure to cause problems for Iran’s mullahs, too. Nevertheless, the Iranian government has assisted us in Afghanistan and Iraq because it was in their best interests to do so. Iran seeks to recapture its primacy in the minds of Muslims as the rightful defender of Islam, a role it cannot assume with an emergent al Qaeda. Meanwhile, with poll numbers at about rock bottom, the U.S. administration desperately needs to stabilize Iraq. Therefore, it appears that the fundamental predicates of an agreement are already in place, leaving open the bifurcated question: Should we and will we make a deal with a bonafide member of the “Axis of Evil?”Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at Vail, Colorado

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