Redeeming America

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image by David Plunkert

On April 18, President Bush delivered a long-awaited speech on his plan to stem the genocide in Darfur. During three years of international hand-wringing, hundreds of thousands had died and millions had been displaced in waves of violence that showed no signs of abating. The hope was that this speech would be a beginning to the end of the suffering.

No stranger to dramatic symbols, Bush chose to appear at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., during a weeklong observation of Holocaust Remembrance. Several survivors attended, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and Bush addressed them directly: ‘You who have survived evil know that the only way to defeat it is to look it in the face and not back down.’

Then came the call to action: ‘It is evil we are now seeing in Sudan–and we’re not going to back down.’

As Bush began to outline his plan for Darfur, however, what began as a battle cry quickly turned into just another hollow threat. The onetime with-us-or-against-us commander in chief explained that he would give the United Nations more time for diplomacy, even as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s regime was painting its warplanes white–pirating the color of humanitarian relief.

The decision to avoid direct action was a bitter disappointment to those thousands who had worked tirelessly in the grassroots campaign to end the genocide. But more notably, it was reportedly a frustrating disappointment to The Decider himself.

This was a president, after all, who in 2001 famously scrawled ‘Not on my watch’ in the margins of a report detailing the Clinton administration’s failures to prevent the murderous mania that claimed 800,000 innocents in Rwanda; the first American president to use the word genocide to define an ongoing mass slaughter; and who, despite all his global blundering and plundering, had marshaled the necessary diplomatic resources to forge a fragile but meaningful peace in the bloody 21-year civil war between Sudan’s north and south. This was, in short, a leader who wanted to stop the killing in Darfur.

But he couldn’t. And his impotence was revealing.

Bush’s inability to effect change was not due to a lack of political will or to indifference. It was a failure of power. The power to pose a credible military threat in the midst of a quagmire in Iraq. The power to sway the U.N. Security Council, stalled by China, to act. And, most critically, the power to move the world’s conscience–a glaring example of America’s fallen standing in the world.

America’s global tailspin
has been well-documented. The analyses, which follow a similar narrative arc, line bookstores’ new-release shelves, dominate op-ed banter, and help countless pundits fill the 24-hour news cycle: After the September 11 attacks, President Bush and his neoconservative cadre squandered the goodwill of the world with a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, then began a dizzying campaign of disengagement from international accords on critical global issues such as arms control, torture, and climate change.

The failures of the Bush administration–from Katrina to Guantanamo, ‘unitary executive theory’ to ‘enemy combatant’–also did damage to the mythology, invoked by everyone from America’s presidents to its history teachers, that the United States is a light unto other nations, a ‘shining city upon a hill,’ in the parlance of Ronald Reagan.

Given the symptoms of decline, the commonly cited prescriptions for restoring America’s status seem obvious. Reengage the international community. Take the lead on climate change. Drop the pursuit of a more advanced nuclear arsenal. Ensure that government can provide basic services. Rejoin the International Criminal Court. Bring back habeas corpus. Commit to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Stop torturing people.

‘What to do is fairly clear,’ says Morton Halperin, coeditor of Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century, recently published by the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, where he serves as a senior fellow. ‘It’s whether we have a president willing to do it.’

America’s strange breed of isolationism and interventionism didn’t begin with Bush, however, and it’s not likely to end with him unless there’s a major shift in priorities. If the intention is to create an international reputation that can transcend any one leader and survive a rapidly changing global landscape, a more foundational transformation is necessary–one that requires the American people and their politicians to rethink the way they see the world and their place in it.

‘One notable constant in American history is our lack of awareness of the rest of the world–or, if we’re aware, our indifference to whether we’ve got the world right,’ Cullen Murphy writes in Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Murphy diagnoses this myopia as the recurrence of an ancient affliction known as Omphalos syndrome: the misguided belief that one’s polity is the center, or navel (omphalos), of the world. For Rome, it was a malignant condition that, among other things, blinded the city-state to a fatal external threat: the Hun conquests that drove hordes of displaced barbarians to Rome’s gates.

Today, America’s narcissism has blinded its citizens to a host of looming dangers, including the spread of infectious diseases, the reality of climate change, and the tinderbox of troubles in failed states. What’s more, Murphy writes, we’ve fallen prey to ‘the conviction that assertions of will can trump assessments of reality: the world is the way we say it is.’

We’ve seen the disastrous consequences of this refusal to acknowledge reality in Iraq, from the administration’s flowers-in-the-street postinvasion plan to its unyielding faith that a few thousand extra troops can put the lid back on a civil war. More generally, this perspective has skewed Americans into believing that we are the world’s moral center as well as its power center.

‘We see ourselves as selfless, as adopting positions that represent only a higher good,’ writes veteran diplomatic negotiator Dennis Ross in Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). Such pretense is not only radically out of step with the way the world sees us in the wake of Abu Ghraib; it’s perilous for practical purposes as well. ‘If we act only out of a higher purpose,’ Ross explains, ‘how easy is it to compromise with those who don’t?’

In a world where the line between domestic and global problems is evaporating–where pandemics brewing in chicken coops in Asia can land on our runways, where the greenhouse gases belching from our SUVs dry up Africa’s arable land–we’ll have to step down from the moral high ground to reality. We’ll need to work with others, listen to their ideas, and sometimes follow their lead.

That will undoubtedly be a tough sell for a populace reared on a national messianism that reaches far beyond the ‘Proud to Be an American’ set. Even well-meaning liberals like Senators John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein parrot the refrain that we must restore our moral authority. But such an imperative is undermined by the very claim to superiority it presumes. Our moral compass certainly needs resetting, but our efforts should be calibrated to reestablish our moral credibility. That way, when we need to call on the world–for our own security or for those in Darfur–we’ll not only be heard, we’ll be believed.

When Bush delivered
his speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in April, he began by mourning the 32 lives that had been senselessly lost in the shootings at Virginia Tech University just two days earlier. The two tragedies had been improbably linked in the person of Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old engineering professor and Holocaust survivor who used his body to barricade a classroom door as his students fled through the window to safety.

‘This Holocaust survivor gave his own life so that others might live,’ Bush said. ‘And this morning we honor his memory, and we take strength from his example.’

That Librescu, who had lived through such torment, would instinctively sacrifice his life in such a situation is testament not only to the man himself, but also to the preciousness of what he was protecting–the young lives of his students–and to the sacredness of universities, which represent at once our society’s greatest achievements and the potential to right our greatest wrongs.

Just hours after Bush’s speech, this spirit of potential was palpable at the student union at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where half a dozen undergraduates were dining and chatting with their guest of honor, Taner Akcam, a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota and author of A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (Metropolitan Books, 2006).

A slight and congenial man, Akcam is one of a handful of Turkish intellectuals who have risked persecution and prosecution to challenge their country to reckon with its bloody past. As the dinner conversation skipped from the roots of genocide to the perceptions of Americans in the world, it was clear that these students were wrestling with the national conscience they are poised to inherit.

It may take some reconfiguring of stereotypes, but forget, for a moment, the image of this generation as self-absorbed infants basking in their own MySpace reflections, and consider this: The seemingly quixotic task of rewiring our national character is, in fact, already under way.

Across the country, college campuses are brewing with creative campaigns to bypass Washington and reengage the world. At universities like St. Thomas, students are driving a targeted divestment campaign that’s putting economic pressure on Sudan and its patron China. Elsewhere, groups like the national youth network Americans for Informed Democracy are holding videoconferences on U.S.-Islamic relations with their cohorts in Jordan and Indonesia.

According to the organization’s 27-year-old president and cofounder, Seth Green, there’s a clear sense among his generation that it’s time for the country to craft a more cooperative and sensible approach to the world. That’s not just a Model U.N. type talking. The numbers back him up. According to a study released by the Pew Research Center in January, 62 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds say the country needs to start listening to its allies and making compromises when necessary. (Only 52 percent of their elders agreed.)

For Green and his peers, that doesn’t mean forgoing American power; it means reimagining its possibilities. To hear Green tell it, it’s as if the country were some upstart teeming with untapped potential: ‘I think,’ he says, ‘that America as a whole has a lot of promise.’

We can’t stand
idly by until these young people take the mantle, though we might have to ride things out until the Bush administration hightails it out of office. In the meantime, we can follow the lead of a few forward-looking think tanks and begin to re-imagine our global mindset.

The Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation have put together Power and Superpower, a guide to righting the country’s crumpling stature by rebinding ourselves to the international order. The recently launched American Security Project, with former senator Gary Hart at the helm, is hatching a bipartisan plan to foster dialogue about the country’s real security needs. The Center for Strategic and International Studies–the heaven on earth for foreign-policy wonks–is devising a ‘smart power’ strategy to balance the hard power of the military and the soft power of persuasion.

One of the mandates of this bipartisan Commission on Smart Power, led by international relations expert Joseph Nye (who coined the term ‘soft power’ a decade and a half ago) and Bush’s former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, is to draft a set of foreign-policy recommendations for the next president’s transition team. To that end, they’ve assembled a high-profile lineup of commissioners that includes former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and retired general Anthony Zinni. They are also–and here’s where they earn their ‘smart’ label–tapping the minds of the public by sending their people on listening tours throughout the country and the world.

This popular-intelligence-gathering mission landed in May at a pizza shop just off the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, where a dozen undergrads rounded up by the local chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy had taken a study break from finals to rattle off surprisingly astute recommendations between mouthfuls of pizza and slugs of soda.

Most of the students at the table had studied abroad, and they were keenly aware of the frustration, resentment, and disappointment with which the world currently regards their country. ‘My host mom cried when Kerry lost the election,’ a 22-year-old senior who had studied in Costa Rica told the group, to nods of recognition.

As such sentiments make clear, for all the think tank reports and expert analyses, the responsibility for our country’s future relationship with the world ultimately lies with American voters, who in the coming months will be subjected to a blur of candidates jockeying to carve out a foreign-policy platform that is both patriotic enough and vague enough to appeal to the broad swath of centrist voters.

So what should we be listening for in the haze that’s sure to come? ‘You want to see a sense of both vision and realism,’ says Nye.

And perhaps a little humility and wariness of the superhero stance that would have America rescuing the world. ‘There is a danger, given how we are and how we’ve acted in recent years, to offering solutions,’ says Tom Engelhardt, the acid-tongued Bush critic behind the blog and a co-developer of Metropolitan Books’ American Empire Project, which has published a stinging series of critiques, including, most recently, Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. ‘How would we solve everything around the world?’ Engelhardt asks. ‘Probably not well.’

It’s a prudent warning. But it’s not a license to stick our heads in the sand. Even from the bowels of Bush-bashing, Engelhardt sees hope in sight. Just before going on a brief hiatus to attend a graduation speech, he posted one of his own. ‘There’s an American can-do (even quick-fix) tradition that has been lost in recent years, in Katrina-level idiocy and incompetence,’ he wrote to a fictional audience of cap-and-gown clad twentysomethings. ‘But the Iraq War, our oil dependency, even the potentially massive effects of global warming might all respond to a new surge of can-doism.’

If the speech weren’t a figment of his imagination, if he were standing at a podium on one of the college campuses buzzing with new energy and fresh strategies, he’d likely hear a simple reply: We’re on it.

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