• The Tao of Non-Interventionism

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    Madeleine Albright,
    who quipped that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were
    “worth it,” infamously called America the “indispensable nation.”
    Max Boot echoes her saying that “we guarantee the security of the
    world, protect our allies, keep critical seal-lanes open and lead
    the war on terror.” Madeleine and Max and their neoliberal and neoconservative
    interventionist ilk would be wise to give ear to this parable told
    by the Chinese Taoist Chuang Tzu, translated here by Lin Yutang:

    Tsech’i of
    Nan-po was traveling on the hill of Shang when he saw a large
    tree which astonished him very much. A thousand chariot teams
    of four horses could find shelter under its shade. “What tree
    is this?” cried Tsech’i. “Surely it must be unusually fine timber.”
    Then looking up, he saw that its branches were too crooked for
    rafters; and looking down he saw that the trunk’s twisting loose
    grain made it valueless for coffins. He tasted a leaf, but it
    took the skin off his lips; and its odor was so strong that it
    would make a man intoxicated for three days together. “Ah!” said
    Tsech’i, “this tree is really good for nothing, and that is how
    it has attained this size. A spiritual man might well follow its
    example of uselessness.”

    The moral of
    the story: make yourself indispensable and you are likely to get
    cut down. Earlier in the text, our sage also contemplates a useless
    tree and draws a lesson from which interventionists of all stripes
    would be wise to learn:

    Hueitse said
    to Chuangtse, “I have a large tree, called the ailanthus. Its
    trunk is so irregular and knotty that it cannot be measured out
    for planks; while its branches are so twisted that they cannot
    be cut out into discs or squares. It stands by the roadside, but
    no carpenter will look at it. Your words are like that tree –
    big and useless, of no concern to the world.”

    “Have you
    never seen a wild cat,” rejoined Chuangtse, “crouching down in
    wait for its prey? Right and left and high and low, it springs
    about, until it gets caught in a trap or dies in a snare. On the
    other hand, there is the yak with its great huge body. It is big
    enough in all conscience, but it cannot catch mice. Now if you
    have a big tree and are at a loss what to do with it, why not
    plant it in the Village of Nowhere, in the great wilds, where
    you might loiter idly by its side, and lie down in blissful repose
    beneath its shade? There it would be safe from the ax and from
    all other injury. For being of no use to others, what could worry
    its mind?”

    America’s geography
    has been her greatest blessing. Like “the yak with its great huge
    body,” her land is large and bountiful, protected on either side
    by vast seas. She is far away from the rest of the world, in the
    “Village of Nowhere” if you will. She has no need to imitate the
    “wild cat” that “springs about, until it gets caught in a trap or
    dies in a snare.” Let her rather remain contentedly at home “in
    the great wilds” to “loiter idly” and “lie down in blissful repose.”

    Our Founding
    Fathers understood this without ever having read Chinese philosophy.
    George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned us of “foreign entanglements”
    and “entangling alliances.” The original Taoist, Lao Tzu, would
    agree. In the Tao
    Te Ching
    , translated here by James Legge, the sage reminds
    us that “[w]herever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring.”
    Yet America has had troops stationed in Germany, Japan, and Korea
    for more than six decades! Lao Tzu might laugh, but the founders
    would be appalled.

    John Quincy
    Adams said of America that “she goes not abroad, in search of monsters
    to destroy.” But what has America been doing since 1898 if not “go[ing]…
    abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” After 105 years of “spring[ing]
    about,” America was duped into the biggest foreign policy blunder
    in her history. Like Chuang Tzu’s “wild cat,” she has been “caught
    in a trap.”

    There is a
    time for legitimate military action when attacked, but prudence
    and restraint is always called for. America would have been spared
    the quagmire that followed the justifiable pursuit of terrorists
    in Afghanistan and the unjustifiable invasion of Iraq had her leaders
    followed the advice of Lao Tzu:

      A skilful (commander)
      strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does not dare (by continuing
      his operations) to assert and complete his mastery. He will strike
      the blow, but will be on his guard against being vain or boastful
      or arrogant in consequence of it. He strikes it as a matter of necessity;
      he strikes it, but not from a wish for mastery.

    “Now arms,
    however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may
    be said, to all creatures,” Lao Tzu continues. “Therefore they who
    have the Tao do not like to employ them.” Not so our chickenhawks.

    The
    imbroglio in the Middle East and the resulting isolation of America
    can only be turned around by America returning to her founding principle
    of non-interventionism. And there is only one presidential candidate
    who is suggesting this sagely course, the author of this brilliant
    essay: The
    Original Foreign Policy
    .

    November
    23, 2007

    An American
    Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send
    him mail
    ] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where
    he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science
    and technology university. He blogs at The
    Western Confucian
    .

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