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An Historic Question: Over There or Over Here?

by Joyce Appleby on Nov 4, 2002

Joyce Appleby

The entanglement of the United States in Middle East politics gets tighter and tighter with every turn of events. Although the destruction of the World Trade Center burst upon us as a totally unsuspected development, the September attack in fact came after 50 years of American involvement in the affairs of Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, not to mention Israel.

As President Bush poises our armed forces to take action against Iraq should that nation fail to comply with UN arms inspectors, one arresting question remains unanswered: should the United States be aggressively policing the world like this or do the needs at home deserve our leaders’ full attention? The query itself has an interesting history.

It is an ironic twist from the past that the first congressional discussion of Muslim culture turned on the same foreign policy issue that is embroiling the country right now. In a debate about helping the Greeks in their revolt against the Ottoman Turks in 1821, members of Congress asked if the United States should pursue its values by promoting them abroad or by cultivating them at home — what we might shorthand to “over there-ism” and “over here-ism.”

The Greek effort to throw off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire at first seemed doomed to failure. But the longer the Greeks held out, the more their independence movement took on the aura of humanity’s indomitable fight for freedom. By 1824 American citizens had become involved. The American “Hellenes” began to hold public meetings, send clothes and medicine to the Greek rebels and petition their representatives to pledge American support for the heroic struggle of the Greeks.

But caution carried the day in 1824; the House defeated the resolution promising moral support. Those who resisted the temptation to aid the Greeks persuaded their colleagues that the greatest contribution Americans could make to democratic self-government was by cultivating democracy at home.

Virginia’s John Randolph summed up the issue in words that are relevant today when he insisted that the United States could best help mankind “not by its crusade to establish the empire of our principles, not by establishing a corps of diplomatic apostles of liberty, but by the moral influence of its example.”Ý The country followed this advice through the nineteenth century.

We could act on this wisdom today, but it would require shaking free of the precedents established in the past hundred years when the United States became the powerful Western hub for European interests. It became that hub only after a century of isolation from the rest of the world, isolation ended by the two World Wars. By 1945, the United States was the largest and most prosperous country in the Free World. Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany had exhausted themselves in the two devastating wars.

The ensuing Cold War intensified our sense of acting on a world stage when we became the principal champion of freedom in a global struggle with the Soviet Union and its Communist allies.Ý Both the Soviet Union and America’s European allies had already established outposts around the world, so few countries in the Third World escaped the conflicts between the First and Second Worlds after the hot war merged into cold.

Now, thirteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolically brought an end to the Cold War, we have a chance to consider the wisdom of cultivating our principles at home instead of “over there.” Americans have rightly felt vulnerable since September 2001, but the intensified fear of terrorism could just as easily serve conservative foreign policy goals as the Bush administration’s radical bellicosity. Pulling back from further warfare would not only soothe both our allies and opponents, it would also focus Americans’ attention on the concrete measures they could take to make us safer at home.

The sober message of conservatives in 1824 was that the country’s “first and most important duty” was to maintain peace.Ý It’s again within the realm of possibilities that we adopt that as America’s first principle. With the attention and revenue spared through a disentanglement from the Middle East, the United States could become that exemplar of freedom, justice, restraint and tolerance that the world’s peoples yearn to see.


Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).