Q&A:  Nigel Hamilton

  • April 21, 2011

Nigel Hamilton, biographer of presidents and others, talks with Charles J. Shields about the revolutions in the Arab world through the perspective of American history.

There seems to be a lot of head-scratching about to what extent the United States should get involved with the upheavals in the Arab world. I would imagine that presidents have always been reluctant to spend political capital on other nations’ problems. That’s not the way to reelection, am I right?

I was much opposed to our occupation of Afghanistan, and then our invasion of Iraq, for successful revolutions, like the American Revolution, are generally internally brewed. Outside interference is largely resented. But modern history has many examples of reinforcement/intercession that have saved democracies — as happened in Europe after World War II. And Harry Truman, who ordered the Berlin Airlift and pushed the Marshall Plan through Congress, did, actually, retain the White House in 1948.

Can you see any benefits accruing from our becoming involved in the Arab revolutions, other than to influence the price of oil?

If involvement is benign, it could have an enormous influence on the younger generation in the Middle East — which, in turn, will dampen the ardor for Islamic fundamentalism.

Historically, American voters care more about domestic than foreign policy issues. Did our emergence after World War II as a superpower make any difference in voters’ priorities?

Decidedly, once isolationism died. Although voter concerns tend to be local, muscular U.S. foreign policy since World War II has been more a vote-getter than -loser, I think. For example, Jimmy Carter’s perceived “weakness” over the Iran hostage crisis lost him the election.

We have been involved in regime change and been criticized for it; we have also put leaders in place, and worked with despots, too, with the same result. In your opinion, do you think President Obama’s wait-and-see response to the revolts in Egypt is an outcome of hard lessons learned?

Our record has been mixed over the years since we became an empire in all but name. Given how hated we became in the Middle East, thanks to our Wild West 43rd president and his Vulcan vice president, I think President Obama has responded to the widening political crises in the Middle East with principled realism — just as the 41st president did, when the Soviet Union police state collapsed.

On the other hand, is it always necessary for a president to have an enemy, or a cause célèbre on the international scene to demonstrate leadership?

It can help, certainly, but only up to a degree. President Reagan befriended the ruler of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev,  and was widely respected for that. So did Richard Nixon with Mao — improbably. In both cases it worked.

Take 3 of your 12 American Caesars who were different in style and imagine how they might react to events in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain right now.

Ronald Reagan would definitely send in jets to get Gaddafi, as he did in 1986, after the Berlin discotheque bombing. He would have been concerned to help, if realistically possible, just as he sent American Marines as peacekeepers to Lebanon — nobly, if with tragic consequences.

Dwight Eisenhower would keep clear, as he did during the Suez crisis of 1956 ― though probably approving secret operations by the CIA, as he did when authorizing CIA “hidden-hand” operations to install a pro-Western ruler, as in Iran!

George W. Bush would be calling Netanyahu for advice.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a response to a manufactured crisis that gave President Johnson more power to intervene in Vietnam. Have there been recent examples of the same strategy?

Well, 9/11 — contrary to conspiracy theories in the Muslim world — was not a manufactured crisis. But it provided the president with enough anger in Congress to get backing for unilateral and disastrous war. A lesson not learned.

Given that Americans are tiring of the war in Afghanistan, and the United States economy is seriously hobbled by debt and joblessness, if President Obama were to be reelected, might this be the beginning of a long period of American military nonintervention in the world?

Nonintervention in the sense of not fabricating reasons to impose regime change on other countries, perhaps. But Americans young and old have too much heart and courage to do nothing while Gaddafi-like rulers slaughter their own people with impunity.

Finally, as the multicultural makeup of the American people continues to change, do you anticipate there will be a shift in voters’ attitudes toward our political dealings with people of color across the world?

Yes, I do — in fact we see it already. Senior political leaders and officers in World War II were openly and primarily interested in saving “white” countries for democracy; today, there is little or no such prejudice.

Charles J. Shields is a biographer who blogs about Kurt Vonnegut, the subject of his next book, at www.writingkurtvonnegut.com.

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