It’s a Wonderful Middle East

There is a lot of George Bailey in America’s foreign policy DNA.  And, like George, we’ve now seen in the Middle East the dystopia of a world in which we are absent. 

As another holiday season recedes in our rear-view mirrors, and another flowering of New Year’s resolutions wilts with the deepening winter, America’s presidential campaign begins in earnest.  I hope that all voters—and presidential candidates—remain impacted by that most American Christmastime ritual: watching the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  There are lessons to be learned from this 70-year-old film set in small-town Bedford Falls that apply to 21st century geopolitics, presidential elections and America’s special role in the world.

In the movie, we meet smart, talented, decent George Bailey (James Stewart) as a boy, diving into a frozen pond to save the life of his younger brother, Harry, who had fallen through the ice.  That brave act costs George his hearing in one ear.

As he grows up, George has plans to travel, get educated, and build great things.  But his plans are repeatedly derailed.  When George’s father dies, Henry Potter, a wealthy, misanthropic landlord and bank director, threatens to dissolve the Bailey family’s small building and loan—which has been crucial to many of the struggling town residents—unless George takes over.  Duty-bound to the business and the townsfolk, he reluctantly agrees, and gives his college money to his brother.

George’s friends and brother go on to great success and war heroism, but George never escapes Bedford Falls or the bank, living a modest life.  He helps develop an affordable neighborhood called Bailey Park, drawing buyers away from Potter’s properties. Potter tries to lure George away with a tremendous job offer.  But as that would mean the end of the building and loan, George turns it down.

When his absentminded uncle misplaces some bank funds, George faces arrest and prison for bank fraud.  Desperate, George gets drunk, and contemplates jumping off a bridge.

Clarence, an angel dispatched to save George, intervenes.  When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence grants him a great gift: he shows George what his absence from the world would have meant.  George explores the town as it would have been without him–now named Pottersville, a rough, seedy collection of bars and casinos; there is no Bailey Park, but instead a cemetery where George finds the grave of his brother, drowned absent George’s intervention—meaning that dozens of servicemen saved by Harry’s war heroics would also be dead; George’s mother is a harsh, bitter widow; his wife is a spinster librarian.  George realizes how meaningful, if unglamorous, his life choices and self-sacrifice have been to so many.

Now, the real world is not as black-and-white as a 1946 film, and history presents geopolitical dilemmas far more complex than whether to leave Bedford Falls.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of George Bailey in America’s foreign policy DNA.

At least, until the current administration, there used to be; if voters are careful to elect a president who appreciates the meaning and indispensability of America’s international leadership, there may be again.

Over the past century, America has sacrificed trillions of its own dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives of its own citizens, pursuing a unique national interest: to defeat tyranny abroad, promote liberty, peace and security internationally and generally make the world a better, freer place.  Though not every U.S. foreign policy choice has been perfect, America’s morality-infused foreign policy has, overwhelmingly, been an unmatched force for good in the world.

Consider Europe, where hundreds of millions owe their freedom largely to American liberation, protection or fighting communist tyranny.  Ditto for citizens of South Korea.  And Japan.  And a dozen other countries.

Yet, America acts benevolently not out of a need for, or expectation of, accolades or gratitude, but simply because that’s what America does.  Just like George Bailey.  George recognizes that there are things bigger than our own narrow interests.  He understands quiet sacrifice, facilitating the success of others, and standing up for what’s right even when inexpedient.  He might make a fine, principled Secretary of State.

The United States sees itself as a nation with a higher purpose, a mission to play an outsized role in positively impacting the world it inhabits.  Thus, America generally resists the understandable isolationist temptation to abandon the world to its own devices, even when engagement costs blood or treasure–just as George Bailey resists abandoning the town and people who likely don’t fully appreciate what a difference he makes, even at the cost of his own wealth and dreams.

America is like George in another key way: we’ve both been shown the dystopian world in which we are absent.

Since President Obama and Hillary Clinton began abandoning America’s Mideast role, a nightmare has unfolded.  Whether turning its back on Iran’s democracy movement, ignoring Iran’s role in terrorism, or facilitating the Islamofascist-state’s rehabilitation and nuclear ambitions; whether squandering America’s hard-won military, intelligence and counterterrorism gains by prematurely pulling all combat troops out of Iraq (against all military advice), ceding any role in Syria to the malignant interests of Vladimir Putin, or declaring “red lines” amounting to no more than trash-talk; whether idly observing the slaughter of Christians, the sex-slavery of Yazidis, the deaths of 250,000 Syrians, the proliferation of Islamist forces (ISIS now in 20 countries) and jihadist terror, the millions of Middle-Easterners flooding Europe, the eroding trust of allies, or the exploding Shia-Sunni hostilities, this administration is inadvertently highlighting just what American regional withdrawal means.  It’s a wonderful Middle East.

Yet, led by Hillary Clinton, the architect of much of this chaos, the Democratic presidential candidates are flirting with—if not advocating outright— dangerously neo-isolationist policies that would only make these developments worse and more widespread.  Unfortunately, so are a couple of otherwise tough-talking Republicans.

As angel Clarence observes, George’s life “touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”  As we vote, let’s keep in mind: the same is true about America.

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