Leading U.S. to peace
The President of the United States of America announced a peace deal with Iran. It’s been so long that American leadership in the world sought peace through diplomacy I forgot we had it in our foreign policy tool box. The last time that occurred to me was on a spring break trip to Arkansas, which, granted, is also not an idea that occurs to many people.
In 2011, my wife and I had the boys for spring break and an offer to use a friend’s lake house in northwest Arkansas. We enjoy car trips with the boys. Driving instead of flying allows us to enjoy each other, whether getting to listen to podcasts, goof off in hotel swimming pools, or stopping places we would never otherwise go. Some of my favorite memories happened on road trips with the kids.
One stop in particular at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library stands out. If you’ve never seen it, the Clinton Library looks like a doublewide Airstream trailer parked up against the Arkansas River, but inside it’s like every other presidential library. You can take your picture in replicas of the Cabinet Room and the White House briefing room, see the presidential limo he used to ride in, and see artifacts of his humble origins. Pretty typical stuff.
My oldest son, then 10, had fallen into step with me. We’ve visited plenty of presidential libraries, so none of this seemed especially whoop-de-doo to him. He was nice about it, but the exhibits on “Expanding Our Shared Prosperity” and “Putting People First” were not exactly blowing his doors off.
Then I noticed him staring intently at one exhibit in particular. He was riveted. I looked. No big deal, just Clinton’s foreign policy record. Some treaties and awards, a letter from Bono of U2, and a Northern Ireland peace process chess set. As far as presidents go, pretty ordinary stuff.
“What’s up buddy?” I asked him. “You OK?”
“I didn’t know we could do that,” he said.
I looked at the exhibit again. There was evidence of an American president making progress for peace in the Middle East, but the centerpiece was the Good Friday Accords that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland between the Irish Republican Army and the United Kingdom. That war had gone on for so long that it seemed like a permanent fixture of world geography, but American leadership had brought about a peaceful resolution.
You’ll have to excuse my sons if they didn’t think that was possible. They are now 14 and 11, and their country has been at war for almost their entire lives.
My oldest, the one who was fascinated that his country had at one time sought peace, didn’t even know about war when the attacks came on 9/11. He was just learning to crawl then. He was the happiest baby I’d ever seen, and pretty soon he’ll go to high school never having known another day of peacetime.
When I was the age he was at the Clinton Library, my family watched the news every night when we ate dinner to catch the latest on the Iranian hostage crisis. We saw them humiliate our embassy staffers and burn our flag. As a child, I fantasized about shooting the Ayatollah Khomeini with my stepdad’s .22 rifle. Seeing “Argo,” all the hate for Iran came back to me.
But we don’t make peace with our friends. We forgive our friends for boorish behavior (see also: Benjamin Netanyahu), but there’s never a chance that we’ll bomb them. Iran still has evil intentions toward our friends and allies in the region, but if they get the details of this nuclear deal ironed out (and Congress doesn’t screw it up) then we will limit Iran’s capabilities to carry out these intentions. That’s why we make peace with our enemies.
Tonight, I’m going to talk with my sons about how American leadership in the world can also lead to peace and not just into war. It’s been so long that I forgot that was possible. More of this, please. I’d like my sons to know what peacetime feels like.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.