Great Presidents Inspire Us


Dec 16, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 16, 2001.

As a nation, we understand what we are against in the war on terrorism, but we have not yet decided what we are for: the future we would like to see emerge from the current conflict. President Bush should present to the nation a compelling vision for the U.S. and the world—in his words, so that "out of this evil act will come good."

The United States' great 20th century wars provide precedent. Woodrow Wilson crafted the Fourteen Points. Franklin Roosevelt enunciated the Four Freedoms (of speech and religion, from want and fear); he joined Winston Churchill in proclaiming the Atlantic Charter; and he launched the United Nations. In June 1963, John Kennedy reached out to the Soviet Union with a vision beyond the Cold War: "not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time." And six months before the opening of the Berlin Wall, George H.W. Bush foresaw a "Europe whole and free."

Each of these presidential initiatives was based on three solid ideas: that out of conflict rocking the nation and the world, a better means must be created for ordering relations among states and peoples, devoted to, among other goals, reducing the causes of war; that this vision must temper power by being grounded in humane values; and that there must be sustained U.S. leadership and engagement abroad. Today, the outlines of a postwar vision are taking shape in two emerging demands of prosecuting the war on terrorism. They are rapidly requiring decisions that will set U.S. grand strategy for the next decade and beyond.

First, the three-part conflict in Afghanistan—against Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban—is posing the question whether we will again lose interest once the threat is reduced; or whether, with our European partners, we will embark on a major venture to transform the Middle East and, in the process, reduce the conditions that breed support for terrorism. This would mean a comprehensive effort to deal with weapons of mass destruction; to provide ideas and resources for economic, political and social development; to prosecute peace without letup between Israel and the Palestinians; and in general to nurture the region, finally, to join the modern world.

Second, and equally compelling, is the need for the U.S. to provide other states with reasons to stand with us in the next phase of the war on terrorism. Few share our analysis of the nature and severity of the threat or, more particularly, what to do about it. Yet we have seen an awareness that a United States attacked and hurting but feeling unsupported from abroad could become a U.S. less willing to continue its commitments. Allied support for U.S. actions in Afghanistan is thus not just a shared sense of outrage but a self-interested understanding that the U.S. must avenge the killings of Sept. 11 and revalidate its credibility as a great power.

But beyond Afghanistan, we are far less likely to command uncritical support. To bolster support for the long-term struggle against terrorism and even worse threats, like weapons of mass destruction, it is not enough to convince others that they, too, can be targeted. We also must convince them that what we do and stand for merit cooperation and support.

This is the paradox of the United States' unparalleled position: Without a common threat like that from the Soviet Union, we have to find ways of translating our immense power into lasting influence. This means both being a leader worthy of being followed and creating institutions, attitudes, processes and practices that will benefit us because they also benefit others.

To succeed, we must move beyond yesterday's efforts to isolate or insulate ourselves, beyond a misplaced sense of American exceptionalism and be ready to join with others in seeking answers to the world's great problems.

President Bush should tell the nation how and why Sept. 11 finally closed the book on the Cold War and its aftermath, while opening up untold opportunities. He should declare an unflagging U.S. commitment to peace, development and reform in the Middle East. He should reaffirm U.S. leadership in codifying hard-won achievements in reducing risks of conflict. He should place the advance of democracy firmly on the global agenda. He should explore what now may become possible with Russia. He should propose ways for the world to capitalize on the benefits of globalization and minimize its drawbacks. And he should call for a new strategic partnership with the European Union.

By seizing this moment, President Bush can lead the nation and the world toward the great possibilities of the new century.

Robert E. Hunter is a senior advisor at RAND.

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