This editorial by Prof. Bowen was published in the News Leader (Staunton VA: August 22, 2008): A9.
by Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
(Professor, Depts. of Political Science and of International Relations, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401)
Since it sometimes is difficult to read every word of a scanned article (as above), here is a clear copy of the original version of this editorial for readers' reference:
August is a dangerous month, and not just because of risk of sunburn. We ordinary people long to hang on to summer and its habits even as days shorten and family schedules quicken. Much as the French traditionally exit Paris for the month, Americans would prefer to put off the hard work until cooler times. Until after Labor Day, we try to delay dealing with serious things. Western leaders seem unconsciously to match this mindset, but they do so at our mutual peril.
This has made August every aggressors’ ideal month. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a mutual non-aggression pact and kept it hush-hush. Oblivious Europeans merrily “holidayed” on, and the plague Hitler’s pact unleashed (i.e., the Second World War) was delayed until September. In August 1990, Iraq conquered Kuwait, but the toothless United Nations waited until November to authorize anyone to expel them. Thus, when Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looked for the perfect time to have his poodle, President Dmitry Medvedev, order the Russian Army to bully and beat up his Georgian neighbors, August 2008 was ideal. Pres. Bush, vacationing in China, and was no more willing to get back to the serious work this demanded than was candidate Barack Obama, who continued to vacation in Hawaii. Indeed, the only Georgia Obama had been concerned about until August 2008 was the one south of here and its 15 electoral votes.
Candidate John McCain did assume a statesmanlike pose and uttered “Today, we are all Georgians,” but he also found time spent in the thin air of tony Aspen, Colorado (elevation: 7890 feet) to be the proper venue in which to both vacation and find some moral high ground. The dispatch of McCain’s team of foreign policy advisors to the war zone for a little fact-finding no more stopped the crude Russian bear than did firmly expressed outrage from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Russian officials, seeing quite clearly the unserious Western response to its aggression, upped the ante and promptly threatened U.S. treaty ally Poland with nuclear attack. Not even at the height of the Cold War did such boorish intemperateness pepper East-West diplomacy. But our national conversation stayed riveted to other concerns expressed by a mega-preacher in Orange County, California and his evangelical flock.
I’m not suggesting we alter the calendar to 11 months. We get distracted for brief periods year round. What I am suggesting is that we as a nation take seriously new and disturbing facts, even if they arrive at inconvenient times. Christmas Eve 1979 was the last time an army advanced across an international border on Moscow’s orders. It took ten years to dislodge them from that Afghanistan adventure. History didn’t politely pause so President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, could have a traditional holiday of present opening. Tired as we may be of the man from Crawford, Texas, the nation has serious issues before it and he is the guy in charge for five more months.
So what should we be hoping to hear from Bush, McCain or Obama? A little less reckless posturing might be a nice start. It may be that democratic Georgia has been helpful in Iraq and has a valuable energy pipeline to Turkey crossing it. But these features alone don’t qualify it as a vital U.S. interest. In foreign policy, what is paramount, and what is merely preferred, need careful articulation. As much as we need a clear picture of our interests, so do our friends and potential rivals. Otherwise, ambitious foreign states may miscalculate as they seek to fulfill their aspirations.
National security is not automatically achieved. In the shifting sands of voters’ moods and ambiguous leaders’ rhetoric, doubt can arise in foreign capitals. Constancy behind the commitments made by this country, whether enshrined in formal treaties or established by long custom, also can falter among our people. It is not beyond the imagination to envision a future America unwilling to stick by our N.A.T.O. treaty and our promise to defend Poland.
This Fall we have the opportunity for a serious national conversation about what matters to us as a people. Rarely in U.S. history have presidential campaigns during times of war proceeded under so much that obscures the road ahead: oil crises, imploding allies (e.g., Pakistan), financial turmoil, aggression by major powers (e.g., Russia in Georgia), and more. Thomas Jefferson guided us to be confident in the ability of the common person to choose wise leaders. But our tendency to lapse into mental patterns better suited to vacation may now put Jefferson’s theory to a telling test.
Gordon Bowen, August 21, 2008
return to Professor Bowen's main page