Monday, February 14, 2011

Time for Some Idealism

A week ago Sunday, we saw George W. Bush watching the Superbowl ensconced in his hermetically sealed box at the EnormoDome (or whatever it’s called). Good thing the NFL put the game in Texas, since Bush can’t travel much: he scrapped plans to travel to Switzerland because if he shows up there, he’ll likely be charged for his role in the torture of prisoners taken in Afghanistan and Iraq. Same thing if travels to virtually any other country in the civilized world—or at least civilized enough to have both signed on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and shown a willingness to abide by it (criteria, by the by, that the U.S. currently does not meet).

Later that week, we saw tens of thousands of protestors in Cairo bring down a dictatorship with nothing but a desire for freedom and democracy. In one interview I saw, a young Egyptian quoted Patrick Henry, saying, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Another held up a sign with Cartman from South Park telling Mubarak to leave. From the sublime to the ridiculous, America was in the hearts and minds of those in Tahrir Square, and as an American, I was incredibly proud.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about that juxtaposition this past week—an ex president who can’t leave his country because of his willingness to wipe his feet on values previously hallowed in American democracy, and a people achieving a dream armed only with a sincere belief in those values.

I’m not an expert in foreign relations, but I think there’s a lesson here. I’m even more sure after seeing that the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter—those nonpareils of the American foreign policy brain trust—have all lamented the departure of Mubarak. I’m confident that when those three think that something’s bad for democracy, it’s proof positive that it’s the best thing that’s happened for freedom since an electrician named Lech Walesa started stirring things up in the Gdansk shipyards.

And the takeaway, it seems to me, is quite simple: we should be for democracy, full stop. Not democracy when it suits our purposes. Not for some but not others. Not when it leads to governments that are appropriately deferential to us. Always.

Much of the mess we’ve made of the Middle East, even pre-Bush, has come from being buddy-buddy with thugs and autocrats who happen to serve our interests. Maybe they make sure the oil tankers run on time. Or they buy our surplus guns. Or they torture people for us. Do any of those things, and you can treat your people like swine. We still wanna hold your hand. 

As far as I can tell, those who get sucked into the orbit of sociopaths like bin Laden don’t “hate us fer our freedom” as much as they hate it when we ignore our values when it suits our short term interests. I don’t think anyone blows themselves up because you can find a Unitarian chapel and a Jewish synagogue next door to each other in an American city, or because in the U.S., women can both vote and flash a tramp stamp in public. I think they blow themselves up because they feel powerless, particularly so when the nation that embodies freedom decides to look the other way when an “ally” runs over its own people with tanks.

So here’s the rule: we support democracy. Yes, there will be times when a country elects a government that is somehow less than optimum in some sense—less eager to sell us oil, more likely to raise objections to black ops sites within their boundaries—but so what? As even our country-bound former president has noted, democracies tend not to go to war with other democracies.

But such democracies have to be the real deal. They can’t be democracies headed by someone we put in power who then uses autocratic power to stay in power. They can’t be totalitarian regimes that we befriend because they help us topple totalitarian regimes. And they can’t be democracies we only recognize as such when they make collective choices we approve of.

We get in trouble, both practical and moral, when we ignore our founding values for short-term gain. Sooner or later, we lose. Waging unilateral war, occupying nations, torturing prisoners—these are things that Americans have said we abhor. They go against our most basic values. And when we’ve allowed our leaders to engage in them, it has cost us dearly.

Realpolitik is so last-century. It’s time for some American idealism—the real thing, not a rhetorical facsimile used to aid and abet business as usual. Let’s believe in America as the only nation in the history of the world founded on an idea.

And let’s believe in that American idea as fervently as those in Tahrir Square did last week.


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