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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Evolution Of Liberty Since The Time Of The Founding Fathers, The History Of U.S. Foreign Policy Has Been A Search For Identity.

By Tim Collie|, Staff Writer

July 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

After a week in which the United States ostensibly bestowed the blessings of liberty on yet another newly freed nation, it's time once again to reflect on the United States' own legacy of liberation.

The Fourth of July this year is being celebrated by a divided country, one mired in a costly, much-questioned war during a rancorous election year. The liberated seem ungrateful, downright hostile, in fact. Their liberators are under fire, both at home and abroad. A brutal dictator has been replaced with a deadly chaos, and once again the United States is bogged down in a quagmire of anger, doubt and self-loathing about its role as the world's only superpower.

Why are we in Iraq? To spread the blessings of liberty or the might of a marketplace fueled by oil? Who are we to tell Iraqis how to govern their lives, much less Egyptians, Iranians, Syrians and Saudis? Just whose Declaration of Independence is it anyway?

These are not new questions. They reflect an internal conflict that dates back to the very founding of the republic, one that has wound its way through bloody quests that ultimately expanded this nation to the Pacific and beyond. They are particularly relevant to Floridians, since the very soil they will picnic on this July Fourth is the fruit of what is now known as pre-emptive war, the very same type of conflict that landed us in Iraq. Looking farther outward, say, from a South Florida beach, it is the same tendency that has determined our nation's course in the Caribbean, in Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Call it Fahrenheit 1776.

The United States has never resolved whether it is a beacon or a sword, the shining "City on a Hill" that spreads freedom through its example or the New Rome that expands its influence through the might of arms.

Is it merely another nation, like France or Argentina? Or something more -- what Thomas Jefferson called an "Empire of Light"? The essential nation?

It's a tension that's wound through our most sacred civil texts. The Founding Fathers themselves mixed their historical metaphors. Was their experiment in democracy Israel, the Biblical kingdom of ex-slaves freed from the yoke of the pharaohs, as the Puritans would have it? Or was it the ever expanding Roman Empire, whose images, architecture, orators and Caesars riddle the writings of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Adams?

Historians have identified various strains in American foreign policy, ideas and principles that range from isolationism to expansion, from the humanitarian impulse to the reflexive use of military power. All trace their roots to sentiments expressed during those first heady days of independence.

There is the Jeffersonian strain, a nationalist, inward-looking effort at promoting democracy at home and avoiding entangling alliances abroad. Then there is the Hamiltonian inclination. Born in the West Indies -- our first Caribbean president -- Alexander Hamilton saw the world as a marketplace. American foreign policy's goal would be to expand its position in that marketplace and use its clout to promote free trade. Peace and stability would be the result.

Two other predominant schools are the Jacksonian,the use of force in the pursuit of national goals, and the Wilsonian, the missionary impulse to fight for democracy around the world.

Confused yet?

Think how the Iraqis must feel. Untangling American motives is difficult for the occupiers, much less the occupied. In his influential book, Promised Land, Crusader State, historian Walter McDougall writes that "confusion and discord have been the norm in American foreign relations not because we lack principles to guide us, but because we have canonized so many diplomatic principles since 1776 that we are pulled every which way at once."

Ten days before his death, which occurred on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the document would be "the signal arousing men to burst the chains and to secure the blessings of self-government. All eyes are opening to the rights of man. ... The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs or a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately."

But when the signal was seen in Haiti, Jefferson turned his back. When slaves revolted and successfully overthrew their French masters in 1802, Jefferson isolated the Caribbean nation, turning it into a pariah state for decades.

Without regional trade, Haiti's economy collapsed, but the United States expanded its own by purchasing the 600 million-acre Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte. France lost its American ambitions forever, the freedom-loving Haitians were saddled with an enormous debt, and the Empire of Light doubled in size overnight.

If those who burst their own chains were forsaken, so, too, were their masters. The unilateralism that President Bush has been so criticized for is rooted in the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers. While Jefferson coined the phrase "no entangling alliances," it was first articulated in George Washington's farewell message.

"It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world ...," Washington declared. "Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." It was ingrained in the first presidents that any alliance was dangerous by nature. When James Madison took the nation to war against Britain in 1812, he resisted allying the nation with France, which was also fighting Britain.

Even the isolationist Jefferson did not hesitate from going it alone when necessary. When the Islamic Barbary states of North Africa continued to attack ships and enslave American and European seamen, he launched a U.S. naval expedition without even informing Congress. For years the European powers had merely paid the Barbary pirates, but Jefferson's fleet bombarded the harbors of the North African countries until they signed treaties renouncing piracy.

But it was the War of 1812 and its aftermath that saw the roots of pre-emption in American foreign policy, according to John Lewis Gaddis, a leading scholar of diplomatic history at Yale University. Following the burning of Washington in 1814, an event that was recalled often after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams approved Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida, which was then a possession of a very weak Spain.

The controversial decision was ostensibly designed to subdue marauding border gangs made up of Indians and former slaves, but the real goal was to attack British adventurers based in the territory and ultimately seize it for the United States. Jackson argued that the move would pre-empt any attack from Great Britain, the Spanish or their continental allies.

What Adams was attempting to do, successfully as it turned out, was to prevent balance-of-power politics from breaking on the North American continent similar to what existed in Europe, which had been decimated by war since the French Revolution. In order for the United States to survive and prosper, it had to be the pre-eminent power on the continent.

As Adams -- like Bush, the son of a president -- put it: "If we allow a balance-of-power system to develop on the North American continent, politics will simply descend into competitions over rocks and fish ponds. We have to be the dominant power."

In this, as Gaddis sees it, lies the heart of the Bush Doctrine. In his new book, Surprise, Security and the American Experience, Gaddis suggests that Spanish Florida would today be described as a failed state. In a highly controversial diplomatic letter at the time, Adams told the Spanish that they must either garrison enough troops to take control of the territory or "cede to the United States a province ... which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them."

Decades later, both Texas and California would be taken for the same reasons. Texas was annexed because of fears its leaders would not be able to stave off Mexico, and California was seized because of the threat that European powers would snatch its great harbors at San Diego, Monterey and San Francisco.

Today the harbors are oil fields, and the military threat is not an armada but rogue regimes and terrorists with the goals of detonating nuclear weapons. In a world in which nation-crippling technologies are becoming ever more portable, ever more deadly, the globe is now the frontier. The nation's oceans no longer protect it, and a balance-of-power politics is no longer feasible. The United States is the dominant power and should remain so -- that's the essence of the Bush Doctrine.

And like Bush, John Quincy Adams was responding to a devastating surprise attack, the British burning of the capital. As Gaddis sees it, the major moments in U.S. foreign policy have been triggered by three surprise attacks: the British attack in 1814, the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Al-Qaida assault of 9-11.

"American expansion correlates with surprise attack. It tends to be surprise attacks that lead to significant expansion of American interests, of American responsibilities," Gaddis says.

"George Bush's policy is not so much a radical departure from the practice of American foreign policy as it is reclaiming or building on a number of themes or issues in the American practice of foreign policy in the past," he says, while making clear he doesn't endorse it.

The danger is that, shorn of alliances, an empire ranging the world in search of threats may end up creating more.

Adams realized this. In a Fourth of July speech in 1821, the former secretary of state, now president, said that "America's glory is not dominion but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace."

The nation would not launch attacks to promote these values, but sire them through example.

"Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all."

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