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A friend the U.S. should stand by

Friday, July 25, 2002

If there is a single American ideal, above all others, it is this: People should live in democracy, liberated to pursue their dreams, free from the lash of tyrants.

To the degree that we have been faithful to this ideal, in our international affairs, we have done ourselves proud. We saved Europe from the Nazis. We blocked the Soviet Union until it collapsed under its own inefficiency. We kept South Korea from being conquered, leading to its miracle of advancement, while North Korea descended into starvation and ruin.

Whenever we have turned our back on this principle, we have felt shame, whether in failing to assist the Kurds desperate to topple Saddam Hussein, or the rogues gallery of despots and dictators we at one time called our friends for some momentary political gain.

Looking ahead, America clearly will be tested again, this time over Taiwan. Just this week, China demanded the United States stop selling it arms, and threatened Taiwan over some vague words its president said concerning independence. Expect more of this. China is on the rise--its economy is growing fast, its military strengthening. And ever since China began renewing its ties to the West, in the early 1970s, its top diplomatic goal has been to isolate Taiwan, the island that broke away during the Communist revolution of 1949 and, unfettered by the madness that Mao and his ilk inflicted on the mainland, grew to success and wealth.

Our record on Taiwan is mixed. We supported it for 30 years, while it was an authoritarian state. Then, ironically, just as democracy began flourishing there, we dumped Taiwan, at the demand of the Chinese. But the sell-out was not complete. While the United States de-recognized Taiwan in 1979, we kept our policy against permitting its military conquest, pledging to aid Taiwan if it were attacked. Without American support, Taiwan might today be the Chinese province that Beijing insists it is, and Taiwan's 23 million people would live under the heel of the Communists.

In the years to come we will have many opportunities to re-evaluate that pledge. A nation that dreads losing the life of a single soldier asks itself: Do we really want to sacrifice to defend this remote island? That is the wrong question. History tells us that nations grow in strength and, inevitably, test that strength. The question is: Do we draw the line and prevent China's seizing of Taiwan, or do we fold our tents and draw the line somewhere closer to home?

This sounds like the dreaded Domino Theory that led us to Vietnam. That's the problem with history. It offers conflicting lessons. The United States fought two inter-Asian conflicts, Vietnam and Korea. One, a blood-drenched failure. The second, a blood-drenched success. Which would Taiwan be? Perhaps when it comes to Taiwan, neither Vietnam nor Korea applies, but the lesson of Munich: Tyranny should be opposed sooner than later. Willingness to fight can prevent war, while ducking from conflict can ensure it.

Our military commitment to Taiwan has kept the Chinese on their side of a narrow band of water for more than 50 years. As the situation heats up, many considerations would seem to place the United States on the side of inaction: economics, hatred of war, domestic politics. Those factors must be trumped by our core value: America supports democracy and opposes tyranny. We sometimes waver, sometimes fail, and those failures haunt us. But always we return to our love of freedom, the bedrock of this nation. Taiwan's future poses a challenge to America's resolve and ideals, a challenge we must not shirk.