A Magnificent Obsession

Washington Times 4.20.99
Balint Vazsonyi

Underneath the increasingly anxious debate about Yugoslavia, there is a much larger question: What is America's role, what is America's mission?

Underneath the increasingly acrimonious debate between Americans who believe in divine providence and those who do not, there is a surprising degree of agreement: America has a definite role, America has a mission.

Fulfilment of America's mission will depend on our ability to recognize, and agree on, what it really is. To begin with, we must concede that this is America's war. Most NATO countries are onlookers. Besides, the other 18 do not claim a special reason for their existence; America does.

The history of man has not been a succession of success stories when it comes to the ability of people to live together. Discoveries and inventions, accomplishments in the sciences and the arts fill libraries. So do tales of enslavement, oppression, and the wanton cruelty of man to its own kind. The struggle for survival accounts for much of it, but it has been the absence of viable political institutions based on the rule of law that has kept even advanced societies, or most of them, from achieving lasting success.

The rule of law - America's gift to the people of Germany and Japan as their lands lay in ruins. No doubt, America was right to seize the opportunity and intervene in the affairs of two nations who had attacked the entire world. When, soon thereafter, Russia announced its intention to make the world one gigantic Soviet Union, America was right again to be the rock upon which the ship of the Soviet state suffered its wreck.

Ever since those times, America has acted as firefighter around the globe.

That is not what the present debate is all about.

The present debate is about whether America's mission is to bring about a world in which all think, feel and act as Americans. There exist assumptions that all people are Americans at various stages of development, and that all people wish to be like Americans.

Neither has a basis in reality.

Take it from this Hungarian who grew up admiring "Mr. Smith goes to Washington," read large chunks of translated American literature during his teens, but still needed the first 30 years (now 40) of living here - with an American wife! - to comprehend slowly how Americans think. So much for the first assumption.

As for the second, the hard-to-accept truth is that most people wish to be governed. It makes life simpler and, for many, easier. Most people cannot even conceive of the idea of self-government, even if they pay lip service to it before American network cameras.

But this nation was founded on the idea of self-government. It is one of a kind. It has grown into a continent-sized haven for people from all over the world - people who could not get along or get ahead in the lands of their birth - to come here and succeed in both. To create such a place took the twin miracles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To realize the promise of those miracles has taken an enormous, ongoing effort that included a war between the states and civil strife. To maintain the very existence of this nation requires eternal vigilance and most, if not all, of our resources.

Slobodan Milosevic may well be a war criminal. The Balkans have been the scene of unspeakable atrocities. Certainly, we should help people move toward a peaceful and productive existence if we can.

Can we?

Only by maintaining and continuously perfecting our continent-sized haven to which people from every place can apply for admission, where they can live in freedom, and prosper. America's mission is to be that place. America's mission is to show the world what can be achieved when man's creativity is liberated by the rule of law, the equal rights of individuals, the security of possessions. America's mission is to show the world how former enemies, descended from centuries of blood feuds, can come together in a single, shared American identity.

But if, instead of showing the world, we go forth and take it upon ourselves to remake the world in our image by force, we speak of an entirely different mission - one that may well exceed not only our original brief, but our ability, our human limitations.

Isolationism renewed? Nothing of the kind. But if we wish to retain the ability to do what we must do, we have to accept that some things we can not.

Much is being said about the need to show would-be aggressors that America can and will defeat Serbia. Honestly, no one in his right mind doubts that America can obliterate Serbia, and more or less any other country. America's strength in the past has been its restraint in not doing what previous great powers had invariably done. America's strength in the past has been in its continuous self-examination - a magnificent obsession indeed.

America's strength in the future might well depend on our willingness to live with the televised horrors and inflated rhetoric of the Balkans, as we refocus attention on the true mission for which this nation exists.