US in the world after 9/11
A talk given by
Dr. Chip Gagnon
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Politics
Ithaca College, 9/12/02
(This is a longer and slightly revised version of the talk given at Ithaca College on September 12, 2002, as part of Ithaca College’s September 11 commemoration)
I want us to think about the United States within the context of the rest of the world. I am speaking as someone from this country, but also as a political scientist, thinking in comparative terms, trying to think about the global system and how the US fits into that system.
If anything you hear tonight makes you angry, I’d like you to take a deep breath and think about where that anger comes from. Since this is an academic setting, I believe it is vitally important for us to think about and analyze the source of our reactions to such abstractions as the global system and America in the world.
I’d like to start with the image of the US in the world that many Americans hold, with a quote from Colin Powell at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in S.Africa recently:
“The American soul has always harbored a deep desire to help people build better lives for themselves and their children. We have always understood that our own well-being depends on the well-being of our fellow inhabitants of this planet Earth.” (Colin Powell, “Remarks on World Summit on Sustainable Development,” Johannesburg, South Africa, September 4, 2002)
Most Americans see their country as overall a force for good, as standing for all the good, positive values that the US symbolizes, as being a beacon of hope in the world.
Yet since 9/11 many Americans have come to see that many people in the world have a quite different view and experience of this country.
Unfortunately, Americans who have pointed this out, especially those in the Academy, who have tried to explain the complexity of how the US is seen and experienced in the world, have been demonized by the Right in this country. (The Right, as used in this talk, includes the political, economic, and media forces that describe themselves as “conservative” or “right”, and which are pushing the U.S. in the direction of greater authoritarianism, working to reduce civil liberties, to decrease the ability of citizens to have a say in how this country is run.)
In this talk I want to discuss the complexities of how the US is seen and experienced in the world, as well as why the Right in this country seems so determined to prevent any discussion of those complexities.
To start with — to understand the US in the world — I think we have to ask:
What is the “American soul”? What is the “US”? What does “U.S.” mean? Who is “we”? Who represents the US and the American soul in the world?
And, do “US” actions in the world really reflect this positive image laid out by Powell and others?
Obviously, “US” is used as shorthand, but even with a common sense understanding we should know that there are differences between the idealistic image of what US is/means versus how the rest of the world experiences the US.
US government actions include not only helping others, humanitarian aid, for example, but also:
- support for brutal dictatorships in Guatemala, Chile, Indonesia, Congo/Zaire and many other places.
- active intervention into other countries’ affairs, e.g., recently in Bolivia, where the US warned people not to vote for particular candidate or else it would retaliate economically against Bolivia. (Duncan Campbell, “Bolivia’s leftwing upstart alarms US — Washington threatens to cut aid if coca-growers’ leader becomes his country’s new president,” The Guardian, July 15, 2002.)
- US-imposed IMF/World Bank policies that have led to social unrest and impoverishment in many countries.
Likewise, there are US corporations’ actions such as:
- Enron’s bullying tactics against governments in India, Croatia, and many other countries (The Enron Saga: Power play in India between MSEB and DPC; “The First Diplomatic Miss by Racan’s Government,” Nacional, No.243)
- The involvement of Bechtel in the forcible privatization of water systems in Bolivia despite the wishes of communities involved (William Finnegan, “Leasing the Rain,” The New Yorker, April 8, 2002.)
These are facts, they should not be controversial, even though many, perhaps most Americans are not aware of them.
When informed about these facts, some Americans may dismiss them as aberrations. But they are just as much a part of how America is seen and experiencedin the world as the positives.
The fact that “the US” is not just one thing in the world is captured very well in the strategy paper of one major US international humanitarian organization:
“as an American agency [we] should not cede ‘American influence’ [in this region] to the U.S. Government, U.S. multinationals, and other exporters of our mass-consumer culture. … U.S. companies are … a significant economic force [in this region], and American cultural exports even more so. [Our] continued presence [here] witnesses to a set of equally American values that is an alternative to the harsher aspects of the dominant neoliberal model that U.S. society and its institutions export so relentlessly around the world.” (Catholic Relief Services/Europe Regional strategy, 2002-2006, p.1; bold added)
Clearly, “the United States” is represented in the rest of the world in many different ways, by many different actors.
The image and experience of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world is likewise a plural one, and includes positives and negatives.
The United States is in many ways attractive to the rest of the world. Here is one example, in the words of Edward Said:
“In the Islamic world the U.S. is seen in two quite different ways. One view recognizes what an extraordinary country the U.S. is. Every Arab or Muslim that I know is tremendously interested in the United States. Many of them send their children here for education. Many of them come here for vacations. They do business here or get their training here.”
But there’s also another view, often held by the same people:
“The other view is of the official United States, the United States of armies and interventions. The United States that in 1953 overthrew the nationalist government of Mossadegh in Iran and brought back the Shah. The United States that has been involved first in the Gulf War and then in the tremendously damaging sanctions against Iraqi civilians. The United States that is the supporter of Israel against the Palestinians.” (Edward Said interviewed by David Barsamian in The Progressive, November 2001.)
Likewise, Noam Chomsky notes that people in the rest of the world “like Americans and admire much about the US, including its freedoms. What they hate is official policies that deny them the freedoms to which they too aspire.” (Noam Chomsky, “Drain the Swamp and There Will be No More Mosquitoes,” The Guardian,September 9, 2002.)
Another illustration of this complexity can be seen in the fictional world of Australian novelist Peter Carey, in his The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. The novel is from the perspective of a small third world country in a world dominated by a superpower that is clearly the United States.
This passage is spoken by the main character, Tristan, who is from a country in which the superpower has violently intervened to keep in power friendly governments — and the latest intervention involved the murder of Tristan’s mother. He is here addressing the citizens of the superpower, trying to explain to them how he and his fellow citizens feel about them:
“You are part of our hearts in a way you could not dream.
“It is as if you, at your mother’s breast, had imbibed the Koran, the Kabuki, and made them both your own. We grow up with your foreignness deep inside our souls, knowing [your folktales, your religious stories], the history … We recite your epic poets for the same reason we study Molière and Shakespeare, listen to your … music as we fall in love, fly your fragrant peaches halfway across the earth and sit at table with their perfect juices running down our foreign chins.
“We have danced to you, cried with you, and even when we write our manifestos against you, even when we beg you please to leave our lives alone, we admire you, not just because we have woven your music into our love affairs and wedding feasts, not just for what we imagine you are, but for what you once were — for the impossible idealism of your [original settlers and founders]….” (Peter Carey, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, (NY: Random House, 1996), p.292.)
“You have no idea of your effect on those of us who live outside the penumbra of your lives” (Carey, p.351, footnote)
This is not a single image. This is not a monolithic, simplistic view of the US. It is one that is multiple, varied, recognizing the positives and the negatives, appreciating and valuing the positives in spite of the negatives. But reacting to the experience of the negatives.
Of course, such a plurality of views and experiences is one that many Americans are also very familiar with.
Here I want to cite Dr. Martin Luther King, someone who deeply believed in the positive values this country stood for, and who challenged all Americans to live up to those values at home as well as abroad. Here are his words from 1967:
“Increasingly by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment. …
“One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. [and inequality in the world has doubled since Dr. King spoke these words–CG]
“With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution in values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.'”…(Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967)
Okay, so this is the ambivalence of what is meant when we say “The United States”. It is many things, many interests, many values; it is seen and experienced in many ways.
The actions undertaken in our name, by the US government, by US-based corporations, by other US-based actors, often do not reflect the lofty ideals proclaimed by Powell, the ideals that many Americans believe and identify with.
Unfortunately, the contrast between the values articulated by Colin Powell, the attractiveness of the US on the one hand, and the actions that contradict those values, on the other, was exacerbated by policies of the current administration from the start, before 9/11, that reinforced the negatives.
This is quite striking and significant for several reasons. First, George W. Bush, in the presidential candidate debates in 2000, declared that,
“I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, we do it this way, so should you. I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course. (Presidential Debate at Wake Forest University, Oct 11, 2000)
This is all the more striking because although Bush is president now, we all remember that he did not win the popular vote — Gore plus Nader had 2 million more votes; and that the electoral vote was, in the recount, actually won by Gore.
But many of the votes that Bush did get came exactly because of the image of moderation he projected.
Yet he proceeded to immediately implement a very unilateralist foreign policy: “who cares what you think” to the rest of the world, disdain and contempt for treaties, international cooperation and organizations.
And all of this is just background, it all existed before 9-11.
Then came 9-11.
This was a particular, special moment.
Despite the negatives of US policies, mostly we saw an outpouring of sympathy for the American people and for the US as a whole — think of the US flags flying in Toronto. But this outpouring of sympathy was also seen in places that had been demonized by the US — Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Libya. To understand this, think of the quotes above by Carey and Said.
This tragedy, and this reaction, could have been, and for many was, a kind of wakeup call to Americans that the rest of the world does exist, and that not everyone experiences the US in the way most Americans think they do. That they do not all perceive the US in only the positive terms and ways that many Americans do.
But unfortunately, there was virtually no change in Bush’s policies; in fact, he just redoubled the unilateralism: his portrayal of the world in black and white, you’re with us or against us; the axis of evil; US actions to actually undermine the International Criminal Court; and now, possibly, an attack against Iraq.
So the chasm between ideals and reality has increased since 9-11.
In reaction to US policies after 9-11, to this growing chasm between ideals and reality, Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, a victim of a US-backed coup in his home country, yet still an admirer of this country, asked:
“Where is that American of mine? Where is that other America? Where is the America of ‘as I would not be a slave so would I not be a master’, … the America of all men, and all women, everyone of us on this ravaged, glorious earth of ours, all of us created equal? Created equal: one baby in Afghanistan or Iraq as sacred as one baby in Minneapolis. Where is my America? The America that taught me tolerance of evey race and every religion, … that is generous to a fault when catastrophes strike?
“So was I wrong? … When I believed America the just, the rebellious, the unselfish, was still alive?” (Ariel Dorfman, “An open letter to America,” The Observer, Sept.8, 2002)
What is even more striking is that any dissent from the idea that reality and ideal do not quite coincide, any disagreement with Bush’s unilateralism, his obsession with using military force, his disregard for the rest of the world, is denounced by the Right in this country as treason.
Anyone who merely points out the facts about the plural nature of how the US is seen and experienced in the world is accused of being anti-American, anti-civilization, and worse.
Any attempt to think analytically or rationally about US actions in the rest of the world is labeled “Blame America First”
The most notorious such example came in November 2001, when the right-wing group ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (founded and chaired by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president), demonized people on US campuses as “anti-American” for saying such things as:
- “Break the cycle of violence”
- “We should build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls”
- “An eye for an eye leaves the world blind”
- “Ignorance breeds hate”
- “Our grief is not a cry for war”
- Ghandi’s grandson at UNC: “We must acknowledge our role in helping to create monsters in the world, find ways to contain these monsters without hurting more innocent people and then redefine our role in the world.”
- “If Osama Bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the US should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity”
(all cites from “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It,” The Defense of Civilization Fund, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, November 2001)
These calls for peace, these rejections of unilateralism, these calls to recognize that the US is part of the global community, these attempts to comprehend this tragedy in an analytic way, were denounced by the right in this country, in the media and elsewhere, as a betrayal of the United States.
What does “the United States” mean to them?
Recently Pope John Paul II has declared that
“the recruitment of terrorists is more easily achieved in areas where human rights are trampled upon” and that “the int’l community must understand the underlying causes that lead young people especially to despair of humanity, of life itself and of the future, and to fall prey to the temptations of violence, hatred and a desire for revenge at any cost” (“Pope Says Roots of Terrorism Must Be Addressed” Associated Press report, Sept. 7, 2002, 0852EDT)
Zbigniew Brzezinksi, the hard-line former national security advisor, recently stated in the New York Times that
“the fact is that almost all terrorist activity originates from some political conflict and is sustained by it as well. … In the case of 9/11 … the Middle East’s political history has something to do with the hatred of Middle Eastern terrorists for America. … American involvement in the Middle East is clearly the main impulse of hatred that has been directed at America.”
“Yet there has been a remarkable reluctance in America to confront the more complex historical dimensions of this hatred.” (Zbigniew Brzezinski,“Confronting Anti-American Grievances,” New York Times, September 1, 2002.)
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who attended the memorial services in NYC, also recently pointed out that the US and the West must bear some of the responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. (Shawn McCarthy, “PM says U.S. attitude helped fuel Sept.11,” Globe and Mail, September 12, 2002.)
Nelson Mandela has recently said about Bush’s policies that “the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace.” (Newsweek interview with Nelson Mandela, “The United States of America is a Threat to World Peace,” Sept. 10, 2002)
The Pope and Brzezinski and Chrétien and Mandela would surely be added to ACTA’s list of the treasonous, of the anti-Americans, of those who are “destroying civilization.”
Right-wing pundits will dismiss them as on the side of the terrorists…
So we have to ask ourselves: What does it mean when some of the most respected statesmen in the world, people respected for their moral authority, people who admire the United States, are condemned like that?
When the authoritarian Right conflates all of the various meanings, values, and actions of US into one thing, and that thing is only positive and is represented by the current administration?
The Right is trying to prevent Americans from understanding the complexities of the world.
Why they are doing this? Why are they tarring anyone who calls for peace as a traitor? Why are the words of the Pope and Brzezinski the kinds of statements ACTA has proclaimed as threatening to civilization, as hating “America”? Why is any criticism of particular Bush policies portrayed as an attack on “the United States,” as “anti-American”?
This raises the larger question:
Who represents the US in the rest of the world? Which values do they represent? What do their actions say to others?
- Whose values were being represented in the long-term US support for the Shah of Iran, for Augusto Pinochet in Chile, for the current Saudi regime?
- Whose values were being represented when Bush resumed negotiations with the Taliban after taking office in 2001, and reportedly threatened to attack them if they did not agree to a gas/oil pipeline through Afghanistan? (Brissard and Dasquié, The Forbidden Truth)
- Whose values were being represented when in the 1980s the Reagan administration, in a policy authored by Donald Rumsfeld, supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, although the US was very aware of his use of chemical weapons? (MSNBC Robert Windrem, “Rumsfeld was key player in Iraq policy shift,” August 18, 2002. Also available online as “Rumsfeld key player in Iraq policy shift” by Robert Windrem in Arab News, Sept.14, 2002)
- Whose values were represented in the Halliburton corporation’s sale of $24 million of oil equipment to Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, at a time when Richard Cheney was CEO, and Iraq’s regime was an official enemy of the US? (Molly Ivins, “Oily residue on Cheney’s hands,” The Sacramento Bee, Sept. 3, 2002)
- Whose values are represented when the US government supports extremist right wing policies in Israel, policies that contradict the most basic human rights?
- Whose values are represented when US corporations like Enron bully countries into disadvantageous contracts? When the World Bank forces privatization of water supplies in the face of massive local opposition?
I could go on, but you get the point.
The real question here is, why does the Right not want people asking these questions?
Why does the Right hysterically cry “treason” at anyone who does not simply swallow hook, line and sinker the policies of the current president?
Why is the Right trying to hide the truth of the multiple nature of how the the US is experienced in the world?
And why are the Democrats so silent about this?
Part of the answer is obvious: US business interests rather than US ideals often drive US government actions. But it’s more than that. Part of the answer also has to do with the authoritarian nature of the Right. I’ll return to that later.
What’s so striking about the statement of the US humanitarian organization that I cited above is how on target it is.
Who is representing and acting upon the positive US ideals in the rest of the world?
Now, I’ve criticized the Bush administration for its unilateralism, for refusing to accept that the US cannot go it alone.
But that is only one kind of unilateralism. US foreign policy under the Democrats may be less unilateralist, but it too is responsible for that negative experiences of the US in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, even among US NGOs and “soft” power purveyers, there is another kind of unilateralism. That is, even those parts of the “US” which are seen as doing the good stuff, are, perhaps unwittingly, reinforcing the unilateralism.
I’ll take an example from work I am currently doing on US democracy assistance in the Balkans.
What I’ve seen confirms the words of Martin Luther King: “The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
The US’s democracy assistance programs in the Balkans are mainly funded by the US Agency for International Development. The attitude of USAID, as well as of most of the US agencies that USAID has chosen to implement democracy assistance, is that they have the truth, and they are bestowing it on the poor ignorant people in Serbia, Bosnia and elsewhere. The Americans who are funding and implementing these programs tend to know little or nothing about the culture, history (even in the near term), or political experiences of the people, and firmly believe that there is no need to know about these things. They dismiss the suggestions of locals as irrelevant, and they undertake projects in ways that end up undermining and destroying already-existing civil society movements and groups. In short, their attitude is one of ignorance combined with arrogance. Imagine how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of this kind of “foreign assistance.”
In Kosovo, the Albanian population is thankful for the US and NATO intervention in 1999. But they are becoming increasingly unhappy with what is in effect colonial rule; an example is the complaint I heard when I was in Kosovo earlier this year, that the US is picking second-rate people to be political leaders, bypassing the most talented and respected Kosovar elites, because the US wants people who are compliant and dependent on the US. Again, put yourself in their position.
The puzzle I’m looking at in my own work: Why? Why even when doing something that seems to be good, helping people, there continues to be this kind of unilateralism that alienates the recipients of aid, that does not recognize their humanity, that does not see them as equal, but rather as children? This is very troubling.
I can understand that it is very difficult to accept these facts. It is very hard because so many Americans’ identity is tied up with that very positive image of the US in the world that Colin Powell described. It is very hard to find out that the reality is not the same as the image.
But how to react? Denial? Anger at the messenger?
Why this response? Maybe Ariel Dorfman has part of the answer:
“Your country, hijacked. Your panic, used to take you on a journey of violence from which it is hard to return, the men at the controls not worried about crashing America into the world.
“But not just the fault of the men who misgovern you.
“They can only do what you have allowed them, responding, those men, to some of your deepest desires.”
(Ariel Dorfman, “An open letter to America,” The Observer, Sept.8, 2002)
What are our deepest desires? Is this unilateralism itself part of the American soul?
The perspective from the rest of the world in particular should make us think about these questions.
As I mentioned, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the US after 9/11. But also, things that probably would not be said to Americans directly:
Close to home in Canada, the country closest to the US in many ways, with massive US cultural and media influence, the country that probably knows the US the best, where after 9/11 American flags were flying in Toronto and other cities, where there was much outpouring of sympathy.
Yet where in a recent nation-wide poll 84 percent of respondents said the U.S. shares some or all of the responsibility for the 9-11 attacks. (Shawn McCarthy,“Most think U.S. partly to blame for Sept.11,” Globe and Mail, Sept.7, 2002)
Eighty-four percent! In Canada! Your reaction might be anger. But we cannot just dismiss these views. This fact really points out how much we don’t know about how the world sees us. We have to try to understand why they think this. And despite the claims of many in Washington, the problem is not that “they don’t understand us.” They understand us all too well. They understand the positives, but they also understand the negatives.
I’ve been to the Balkans four times in the past year, most recently for a month in Serbia and Bosnia.
Again, there is much sympathy for victims of 9/11, and especially in Bosnia, for the US. Even in Serbia, despite NATO bombing three years ago.
But what do I say to someone from Bosnia — where 200,000 civilians were slaughtered, where every major building in every major city and town was bombed and destroyed in acts of terrorism — when the US media is proclaiming 9/11 as the worst tragedy in human history?
What am I to say to Bosnians who asked me about this claim? What can one say to a Rwandan, where 800,000 people were killed in a genocide in 1994? That Americans are more important, more human, than Bosnians and Rwandans?
From that perspective, rather than humanizing the US, the reaction of parts of the US political class and media, especially on the Right, but even those who see 9/11 as having been a turning point in world history, further distance the US from humanity.
Is this the goal?
Unfortunately this kind of strategy is all too common.
In particular, this is a strategy of using images of the outside world as a very dangerous, threatening place, in order to silence political opponents, marginalize them; creating fear that tries to silences any dissent. Orwell’s 1984 is a striking illustration of this kind of strategy.
But we can see another real-world, nonfiction example of this strategy closer to home, during the Cold War.
In both the US and the Soviet Union, from the very beginning of the Cold War, the most conservative and authoritarian parts of the political elite used a hyped-up image of the other superpower as ultimately threatening.
They used this to engender an atmosphere of fear and insecurity that allowed them to try to silence and marginalize those other parts of the political leadership which were trying in various ways to improve life for the vast majority of the population, to try to impose their authoritarian world-views onto their entire nation.
This was a strategy of fear, it created insecurity as a way of dealing with political opponents at home.
Indeed, this foreign policy strategy has its ultimate goal at home; by hyping an image of threat, authoritarian forces attempt to strengthen their control over their own society.
Not coincidentally, the Right now is quite openly rejoicing that the war on terror is taking the place of the Cold War. Right-wing political commentator Charles Krauthammer for example noted that now,
“our confusion is past, for we have been given an organizing principle of power similar to those of the 70 years preceding the end of the Cold War. We have been given it in a way that is undeniable and immediate.” (Comments in “After September 11: A Conversation,” The National Interest, Thanksgiving 2001, p.67.)
What kinds of fear is this tapping into? How can we feel unsafe given the level of US military power and spending?
- US military spending in 2000 was more than combined spending of next 25 countries;
- US spending represented 36 percent of all military spending globally;
- In the words of the Dept. of Defense, “The US military is currently deployed to more locations than it has been throughout history”; 226 countries have US military bases and/or US troops on their soil. Only 46 countries in the world have no US military presence.
(Information from The Center for Defense Information, “World Military Expenditures”; “Deployment Information,” from the web site of the US Dept. of Defense;
How can we feel unsafe? How can we be fearful?
Here’s one answer, from Salman Rushdie in his recent novel Fury, originally published in 2001 before 9-11. One of the characters in this novel explains:
“America, because of its omnipotence, is full of fear; it fears the fury of the world and renames it envy, … They think we want to be them, … but we’re really just mad as hell and don’t want to take it any more.” (Salman Rushdie, Fury NY: The Modern Library, 2002, p.114)
Why are we so afraid?
We saw another striking example of how the authoritarian Right uses a strategy of fear in the cases of Serbia and Croatia.
In both places, right-wing authoritarian forces were facing challenges from popular opponents who were seeking change.
In both places, the Right used images of the outside world as ultimately threatening.
In both places the Right used military force against others, which had the effect of reducing the security of those it claimed to be helping.
In both places, people who called for peaceful resolution of conflict were tarred as traitors.
In both places, people who criticized the foreign and military policies of the government, of the presidents (Tudjman and Milosevic) were demonized as anti-Croat and anti-Serb.
In both places, anyone who pointed out that their country’s government was not living up to liberal values, was violating basic civil liberties and human rights; that they had done bad things to others, things that did not match the positive images that were officially purveyed, were accused of being traitors, of “blaming Croatia first” of “blaming Serbia first”.
What is especially paradoxical is that the United States officially supported these opposition forces, these “treasonous, anti-Croat and anti-Serb” political forces.
The United States supported the anti-nationalists in these places as well as in Bosnia, which was under a three year siege.
The anti-nationalists in Bosnia, the ones we supported, were, even in the life and death situation facing their country, extremely open and critical of the policies , including military strategies, of their leadership.
– They rejected the simplistic black and white, “you’re with us or against us” language of the nationalists.
– They saw debate and open dissent as most important exactly because so much was at stake.
Ironically, those whom the US Right is denouncing as traitors in this country, as anti-Americans, “blame America first” critics of Bush’s militaristic stances, those who they viciously attack, are those who represent the values that the US claimed to support in Balkans war.
Someone who calls for peace is called anti-American!
Someone who criticizes the US government’s betrayal of the ideals of this country is labeled an enemy!
We’re also seeing this exact same strategy in countries around the world, where right-wing, authoritarian political forces are using the US’s “war on terror” as a way to crack down on dissent and opposition at home, as a way to curtail or end civil liberties.
This strategy of fear used by authoritarian forces inevitably leads to the destruction of society: not only in material terms, but in moral terms. Especially a society that tends to define itself in positive moral terms.
So it is absolutely imperative for all who want security and peace, for all who care about the fate of this society, for all who care about the fate of the world, to reject the simplistic views and demonization coming out of the Right.
It is our duty to criticize those who wield enormous power, to question them, to reject calls for blind obedience and support regardless of the costs, to demandthat they respect the values and ideals of this country.
Once again, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into brotherhood.”… (Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967)
That is, to survive, we must recognize the humanity of the rest of the world in our dealings with them, not just abstractly, but in concrete ways.
That is exactly what is missing from much of how the world experiences the United States.
Our challenge: How to do that. How to make even humanitarian aid and democracy assistance reflect a relationship between human beings, rather than a relationship of power and domination.
That is our challenge. To live up to the ideals that Americans believe their country stands for.
In the words of Ariel Dorfman:
“Am I wrong to believe that the country that gave the world jazz and Faulkner and Eleanor Roosevelt will be able to look at itself in the cracked mirror of history and join the rest of humanity, not as a city on a separate hill, but as one more city in the shining valleys of sorrow and uncertainty and hope where we all dwell?” (Ariel Dorfman, “An open letter to America,” The Observer, Sept.8, 2002)
And at this point, the biggest obstacle to that goal is Americans’ sense of being outside of the world, rather than being of the world, being part of the world.