Tuesday, April 05, 2005
( 1:14 PM )
Crossing the Rubicon
You may know that the Rubicon is a small river in northern Italy. During the time when the Roman Republic was at its prime, it was the boundary that protected Rome from its own imperial armies (a couple of centuries BC). The standing rule was that no soldiers marched past the Rubicon into Rome. Of course Julius Caesar was the first to take his army across the Rubicon into Rome, plunging it into civil war and leading to the ultimate destruction of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman dictators. So now the phrase "crossing the rubicon" refers to starting on a course of action from which there is no turning back.
In his recent article in In These Times, Chalmers Johnson uses the story of the Rubicon to describe this administration's foreign policy - in his words, "alarming."
I believe that on November 2, 2004, the United States crossed its own Rubicon. Until last year’s presidential election, ordinary citizens could claim that our foreign policy, including the invasion of Iraq, was George Bush’s doing and that we had not voted for him. In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote and was appointed president by the Supreme Court. In 2004, he garnered 3.5 million more votes than John Kerry. The result is that Bush’s war changed into America’s war and his conduct of international relations became our own.
This is important because it raises the question of whether restoring sanity and prudence to American foreign policy is still possible. During the Watergate scandal of the early ’70s, the president’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, once reproved White House counsel John Dean for speaking too frankly to Congress about the felonies President Nixon had ordered. “John,” he said, “once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s very hard to get it back in.” This homely warning by a former advertising executive who was to spend 18 months in prison for his own role in Watergate fairly accurately describes the situation of the United States after the reelection of George W. Bush.
Johnson argues that by re-electing Bush, we crossed the rubicon as a nation. We can no longer explain away our behavior toward the rest of the world by saying this administration does not have a true popular mandate. Though slim, it does now carry the electoral mandate it so desperately wanted. And because of that, we are now all responsible for understanding that the ship we're sailing has suffered unalterable blows - and we are responsible for immediately doing what we can to fix it.
Johnson names three main problems that must be solved in order for the US to play a more positive role in the world. First, it must resolve its fiscal crisis. The looming bankruptcy of the nation and the massive trade and fiscal deficits are something that Americans and their elected leaders have so far been quite adept at ignoring. But they are very real, and our financial ails are enough to limit or completely destroy our ability to make choices for ourself as a nation.
Second, our citizenship in the international community must be addressed. Johnson says this is not so much about reforming our policies, but more about "reforming our attitudes." The more our attitude belies little concern for the rest of the world: (our approval of abduction and torture, the appointment of offensive people to posts that should show our respect to the world, our contempt for international law and international courts, our bullying based on ideological stances that have nothing to do with the world's needs (insisting that abortion be part of every decision made in giving financial aid to health organizations)), the more our policies won't even matter anymore.
Finally, if the above two things can be resolved, THEN we can look to trying to reform our foreign policies. New approaches to global issues are badly needed, and we are still stuck in cold war/bilateral ways of thinking. For example, we are consumed by our cold war habit of needing an external enemy in order to foment internal peace. We have turned to this new "war on terrorism" with gusto, instead of changing our whole approach to dealing with the new global dynamics that face us. We're so intoxicated by our status as "sole world power" that we will lose hold of that status before we even have a chance to use it in a positive way. We are a young nation that has achieved its empire earlier than many other nations in history. But if history tells us anything, empire is ephemeral and if we do not change the way we think and the way we approach the world, before we know it we will be left behind.
I encourage you to read the article by Johnson. If anything, he provides details of these three arguments for improving our foreign policy.
I don't know if I agree that our Rubicon was crossed on Nov. 2, 2004. I tend to feel it was crossed two weeks ago, when the Legislative and the Executive branches declared war on the Judicial branch. The sometimes balanced, sometimes wavering separation of powers is the bedrock on which our Federalism is based. Our own Republic, only 200 years young, exists because we chose not to make one branch more powerful than the others. With the massive powers of the Executive and its agencies, and the increasing intransigence of the Legislative, the judicial is left facing abuse from all sides (Congressional leaders want their guys appointed, but when their guys don't make the judicial decisions they like, they want to just get rid of them). How did we get here? How did we all sit quietly while Congress and the President strode into Washington at midnight on Palm Sunday and decided they had the right to temporarily end federalism for their own purposes?
If we simply continue on the path we are taking now, we will reach a point where we can't stop, and our Rubicon will have been irreversibly crossed. If it hasn't been crossed already.
UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias expounds (very well, as always) on the Legislative Branch's continued assault on the Judicial branch.