Edmund Burke said it: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." He could have been summing up this administration's foreign policy, assuming it has one. Burke had studied enough history, and made enough of it himself, to see that the American Revolution was a cause to support while the French Revolution wasn't. Which made him not only a statesman-philosopher but a prophet. And his prophecies had a way of coming true, for they were based on the best of guides: experience.
But the American response to evil is too often the last we try. Or as Winston Churchill once put it, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they've tried everything else." Unfortunately, this administration is still trying everything else, persuaded that somehow evil will never have to be confronted, that this country can enjoy our splendid isolation, buffeted as we are by two oceans and far away from events in the Middle East.
Never mind that the anarchy in that flammable part of the world keeps rippling across Europe and soon enough will be on our doorstep in the form of still another wave of refugees seeking asylum. The price of ignoring the civil war in Syria mounts every day, but Washington continues to dawdle -- just as it has done for years now. There is apparently no limit to the suffering of others that this administration can stand.
Remember how the America of the Clinton Era slept on even as civil war swept Eastern Europe? Remember the name Warren M. Christopher? Not that there is any reason you should. He was Bill Clinton's first secretary of state, though that office might as well have been vacant. He was the John Kerry of his day, forever temporizing instead of acting.
But who noticed? It was a time to see no evil, hear no evil and do nothing about it. A time much like today. Why get involved, our isolationists want to know, not realizing we are already involved whether we want to be or not. Evil doesn't ask for permission before it crosses an international border. Any more than Ebola does.
It's an old, old mistake of our isolationists to believe we are safe here from dangers elsewhere, not realizing we have been involved in world wars even before we were a nation. See the French and Indian War, which was just one front in what the Europeans called the Seven Years' War. This was one world long before Wendell Willkie coined the phrase at another time when American isolationism was at high tide.
The naive notion that the present and continuing horrors in Syria and beyond have nothing to do with us is belied by every video out of the Islamic State. But it would be as dangerous by any other name as it fills the vacuum left by America's withdrawal from that flammable part of the world. By now even this administration has been forced to take some notice of it, and even take some action to contain it, however little and late.
It's an American tradition by now, waiting till the last minute to discern a danger. If then. "I sometimes wonder," American diplomat George F. Kennan once told an audience that had gathered in a great lecture hall to imbibe his wisdom, "whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could not have prevented some of these situations from arising...."
In his always temperate, even detached, discourse on the shortcomings of American diplomacy, Mr. Kennan had diagnosed a continuing problem. And it continues yet. The dinosaurs may no longer be with us, but the delusions of isolationism linger. You can see them in the White House's every hesitant move -- and equally hesitant delay. The isolationist impulse is part of the American ethos by now, even though that doesn't make it any less shortsighted.
How long, oh, how long before this administration wakes up, if it ever does? There's no telling, but as long as it sleeps on, evil grows -- and grows ever closer.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.