US foreign policy these days recalls the story about the drunk guy looking for his keys under a streetlight. A passerby chips in to help, but, getting nowhere, stops and asks, "You’re sure you dropped them here?"
"No. It was over there," says the loser, pointing to a dark alley.
"Then why are you looking here?"
"Because the light is better."
The reality is no joke. Our government’s happy-go-lucky commanding officer insists on searching for our lost sense of security where it can never be found... in the rubble of a country that he – with our complicity – has transformed into a living hell. It's all too likely to happen again, perhaps soon in Iran, unless wiser heads prevail.
It seems to me that John Edwards, Barack Obama, and a few other Democrats have better clues about where to look.
Let’s get busy finding those keys. Please follow me below the fold.
To start, it’s necessary to be clear that Bush's War is not just a dry drunk's foolish errand, but a deadly waste of lives and treasure.
The sacrifices by American volunteers have at least upheld the honor of loyal service to this country’s principles. There is heroism in that. But protecting America’s interests in security and freedom doesn’t require such a gruesome cost. Each loss of life and limb, therefore, will count as an everlasting tragedy.
An even greater tragedy for our country is that, despite fruitless effort, Bush and his supporters refuse to take the search elsewhere. This perilous misadventure drags on at their behest. Not only do they persevere in their sputtering, self-delusional denial of their own miserable failure, the worst of them have the gall to misrepresent the reality-based community as the party of "defeat and surrender," as if we do not care to defend our freedoms.
Fortunately, prudent Americans still have the power to shape a just and beneficial outcome. Even if we can’t turn back the clock on the wrongs done in our name, a lasting solution is within reach. Achieving it means quitting the sterile plot of endless war. Only then can the search resume where a prosperous and secure freedom is most likely to be found.
Of course, making the move from fool’s errand to competent foreign policy requires a different set of resources. We’ll need a very precise of description of what we are seeking. We’ll need a reliable source of illumination. Most important of all, we’ll need as many helpers as we can attract, including any misguided drunks who might have the good sense to sober up, redeem themselves, and join us in the search.
The goal of the search is the victory of freedom, which is worthy for its own sake.
There is no doubt that threats to our freedoms come from overseas. Vanquishing those threats, however, requires a new approach. We need to guard against repeating the counterproductive mistakes of the current Administration. We must take care to understand why we have been so easily misled into acting so self destructively. We can’t deal with the global challenges to freedom in a deeply effective way until we undertake an honest, probing self-assessment of the risks to freedom here.
Fortifying freedom requires first of all that we each take inventory of our own attitudes and definitions. How well do we as individuals truly understand the implications of freedom? Do we demand personal accountability for our choices and their consequences? Or do we shirk that debt? How many of us merely give lip service to the idea of freedom, and yet pretend to live by excuses, denying our abilities to choose at all? There is no greater threat to freedom than that.
As we reconsider how to deal with the attacks on our freedoms that originate abroad, we are also obliged to ask how well freedom is defended within our borders. Though this country was founded on the demand for liberty, the response is still a work in progress, and that work must not be neglected.
A wise man once wrote, "Hypocrisy is the honor vice gives to virtue." At the inception of the Cold War, when Democrats and Republicans allied to advocate democracy as an alternative to Communist dictatorships, an urge to consistency inspired many of them to confront the shameful injustice of segregation here at home. Likewise, a new campaign to defend our global interest in freedom will prompt a fresh confrontation with the legacies of corruption, poverty, division, and decay that still plague us here.
American-style freedom – ensuring that the rightful interests of all citizens are treated with due process and full dignity – is a noble national purpose. And so far, it is a successful one. Over the length of time that our constitution has endured, our prosperity has grown, and demands for rights have been fulfilled. Yes, there have been setbacks under the Bush administration, but the damage is not permanent. We still possess the will to reclaim control.
Our national will to liberty can not be denied. Roger Williams and James Madison did not struggle in vain. The seeds of respect for personal sovereignty they planted here centuries ago grew deep roots. The present drought will pass, and freedom will bloom again.
In fact, the more we nurture respect for freedom within ourselves and across our nation, the greater the prospect that freedom will flourish around the world. That's the outcome we hope to find. First, because we forthrightly hope for others to share in our abundant good fortune. Second, because the enjoyment of that abundance by others can augment our own.
Who would argue against the simple logic of George W. Bush? "The best hope for peace in the world." he said, "is the expansion of freedom in all the world." It is an undeniable sentiment. Even the drunk knows he needs to find his keys.
Of course we all want an expansion of peace. Of course we want all an expansion of freedom. It makes sense that the two would go hand in hand. The place to look for the victory of freedom, however, is among policies that align means and ends. Escalating belligerence while preaching platitudes has achieved nothing and risked too much. The way out of this predicament is a strategy predicated on consistency.
The most venerated ideal of consistency in human culture is called the Golden Rule. Might it provide a touchstone for making foreign policy? It seems unlikely that the feckless bumblers who presently run our country have considered the possibility, especially with regard to whatever figure they have set up for vilification as the designated enemy of the day.
Treating others as we want to be treated implies a capacity for recognizing that we and others share a common humanity. A stubborn predisposition for calling one’s opponents satanic evildoers only serves to preclude that possibility.
But we saw the planes hit the buildings. We know that terror against innocent civilians in the name of Islam is a growing trend. We know that Islamic-branded law all too often denies women their rights to recognition and sovereign dignity. We see parents instilling in their children a passion for murderous suicide with promises of a fairy-tale afterlife. We see streets exploding in bloody riots after the publication of silly cartoons.
Seeing those maladaptive cultural commitments, one is tempted conclude that the people of Islam will never give up submitting to oppressive urges, notorious intolerance, and irrational rage. If they are fated to unremitting, irreconcilable hatred of their sworn enemies, how could we ever be like them? How could the reciprocity of the Golden Rule ever apply?
After seeing the planes hit buildings, many Americans convinced themselves that the world of Islam had converged around a pernicious ideology. Our national psyche was imprinted with images of zombie troops and wacko hordes led by Bin Laden, Hussein, and Ahmadinejad, all allied against the US in an inhumane, predatory, apocalypse-wishing cabal. However much they may have hated each other, they seemed to have united around hating us more.
How do we make sense of this? If the classic version of the Golden Rule teaches that it is wrong to hurt others, another interpretation – "Do it to them before they do it to you" – teaches the necessity of aggressively facing down those who, for whatever reasons, declare us to be their enemies. The metaphysical concept of Good Versus Evil could be dismissed as pure poppycock, but if the other party believes it to be true, are we not doomed to an existential struggle just the same?
That fear explains why so many Democrats supported Bush’s War for so long. It also explains why so many now favor an escalation of tough talk and provocative pressures against Iran, if not outright war. That fear has diminished our capacity to reason.
We have been looking for solutions under the bright and convenient light of fear-fed belligerence, a place in our brains honed by evolution to keep us alert to potential threats and predators. Other mental faculties seem dormant... the parts of our brains which can spark recognition of the potential for teamwork and kinship. Refinement of those higher order faculties helped illuminate the way as human escaped their nasty, brutish, and lawless origins. Reactivating them now can provide the tools for putting this predicament behind us.
At the end of the day, despite the mutual expressions of fear and loathing, we have the same kinds of brains as our Arab, Persian, Pushtun, Azeri, and Turkish cousins, just as we share same kinds of eyes, arms, and legs. However misguided our adversaries may be in demonizing us, Americans are susceptible to the same underlying malady. Its antidote is the recognition that we humans contain within ourselves the free capacity to reorder our commitments. Enlightenment comes from the discovery that hatred is not a preordained immutable fate, but simply a choice.
Evidence that this higher order spark still glows within us was momentarily visible at the CNN/YouTube debate for the Democratic Party candidates, prompted by a question from Stephen Sorta:
In 1982 Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel for a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
Sorta’s video was instantly popular, generating big applause from the attending audience. He had gotten a few essential facts wrong, however. Sadat’s trip took place in 1977, not 1982. More importantly, there was the issue of preconditions. In fact, Sadat’s conditions had been clear: movement toward a comprehensive peace settlement based on UN resolution 242. Despite those slips, the plea was clear enough: Who, as President, would follow Sadat’s example, break the ice between hard-hearted foes, and go the extra mile for peace?
The question went to Barack Obama first. "I would," he answered, "We have the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward. I thinks it’s a disgrace that we have not spoken to them."
Obama’s response addressed the spirit of the question, and thus the spirit of Sadat’s initiative. To further underscore the point that diplomatic engagement with major adversaries is both honorable and effective, Obama added the example of Ronald Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviet "evil empire."
Hillary Clinton, given a turn to respond, stressed the pitfalls of unconditional negotiations. Such talks are, in fact, rarely sound endeavors for heads of state. Though her answer gave a nod to diplomacy, she seized the opportunity to embarrass Obama. In doing so, Clinton simply ignored the redeeming spirit of the question.
The "clash" between Obama and Clinton headlined the debate postmortems, and the tiff went on for several news cycles. Clinton upped the ante by calling Obama "naive." He parried by calling her position "Bush-Cheney lite." Obama then reframed himself as a chest-thumping advocate of muscular positions against Pakistan and Iran. Perhaps his shift was politically savvy, but to attentive ears it sounded like a familiar retreat back to the bright burning light of belligerence.
What was immediately forgotten by almost everyone who saw the debate was that John Edwards had been allowed to respond as well. Like Clinton, he rejected the idea of unconditional negotiations. But he had the good sense to add the following:
This is just a piece of a bigger question, which is, "What do we actually do? What does the President of the United States actually do to restore our moral leadership in the world?" It’s not enough just to meet with bad leaders. In addition to that, the world needs to hear from the President about who we are... what it is we represent... that in fact we believe in equality, we believe in diversity. That they are at the heart and soul of what the United States of America is about.
Freedom is an even more fundamental American value than equality or diversity; it should have led his list. But there is no incompatibility. The virtue of Edwards’ response was his implicit awareness that giving voice to America’s honorable creeds binds the discourse that ensues. Stating values sets preconditions.
On the playing fields of international diplomacy, you don’t win by "kicking ass," as our current bungler in chief is wont to do, but by making as many honest and enduring allies as can be found to help shape the outcomes you want. And that is done by drawing in other parties as peers within interlocking webs of legal rules and mutual expectations.
Political leadership consists in taking the initiative to frame principles around which those formal and informal commitments may arise. Enlightenment is a group project. It is well within the bounds of fair play to promote certain values as a motivating goal for the whole team.
The extra challenge of the Golden Rule is to perform deeds that uphold one's most honorable creeds. Doing so maximizes the likelihood that one’s preferred principles will be respected and adopted by others.
The day when Americans can reclaim authentic moral leadership on behalf of freedom is long overdue. Fulfilling that leadership has a very practical purpose. Foreign threats against freedom really exist, and they are serious. We must be alert to those threats and we must find appropriate ways to confront them. But our predicament is not only a matter of defending against physical assault. Where our Soviet adversaries at least embraced the word freedom (even if their materialist vision of it lacked appeal), despotic figures like bin Laden have articulated direct ideological challenges to it, and thus to the values that underpin our chosen way of life.
Reactionary Islamists base their appeal to new recruits on two grounds: First, they present a litany of historical injustices as evidence that the American record of hypocritical behavior proves our ideology empty. (Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has done precious little to demonstrate that we have put those sordid chapters of our history behind us, and Americans generally remain astoundingly unfamiliar with the needless suffering created in their name.) Second, the radical Islamists declare that it is necessary to live in slavish accord with their own unique interpretation of Koranic law, deemed to be the stated will of God.
So, where do we find the keys that can lock down the threat? Simply correcting our own flaws in ways that rehabilitate us as the world’s undisputed paragons of authentic freedom will not be enough. Not while so many reactionary jihadis continue to feel bound and determined to justify oppression in the name of eternal religion.
The direction we need to explore will take us to an understanding that there is an ideal even deeper and more fundamental than freedom.... the ideal of having a morality at all.
The virtue of having a morality is that it binds people together around rules and beliefs that feel larger and more persistent than themselves. Creeds are honored for their own sake rather than for the credit of their self-proclaimed apostles. By embracing them, we embrace a shared loyalty... an instrument by which we can grant each other kinship. We thus acquire the means to embrace each other.
Regardless of how they specifically define "Good," all people share a desire to live in harmony with whatever they believe its dictates to be. This desire for direct correspondence with the rules -- and especially the rewards -- of cosmic fairness is wired into our mental physiology almost as deeply as emotions such as fear and love. It is a profoundly joyful sensation for those who believe they have achieved it. What Christians call grace, Muslims call tawhid.
In practice, however, the challenge of consistently matching deeds to creeds demands more skill and strength than most people can muster. What Muslims call jihad, we call courageous fortitude for the sake of our ideals.
It turns out that we demand fairness for ourselves more insistently than we demand it of ourselves. Though we may feel acute pain and resentment when we or our immediate loved ones are not treated fairly, our limited, benumbed capacity for empathy permits us to engage in stunningly selfish and callous behaviors. Consequently, people tend to show great skill at pointing out the shortcomings and hypocrisies of others, but far less at discerning their own.
A common, easily justified view within the Islamic world is that imperialist Americans are brutally greedy thieves who have no credibility as proponents of freedom, despite claiming freedom as their core value. And a common, easily justified view in the United States is that extremist Islamists are bloodthirsty murderers who have no right to hail their god as merciful, despite proclaiming their faith as the religion of peace.
The irony of our situation would be laughable of the consequences were not so painful. Our civilizations’ foundational creeds – freedom for the secular-minded... mercy for the religious – could be used as levers to resolve this predicament, yet we use them as clubs to perpetuate it.
There is no doubt that millions of people would immediately benefit if the followers of Islam were to meet the obligations of mercy and peace they claim to uphold. We look forward to the day they see that light.
In the meantime, we can learn to practice the highest virtues of mercy ourselves. In doing so, we can set examples for others to emulate and surpass. By the same token, we are subject to the examples others may set for us.
Consider the serial victories of democracy and freedom that occurred around the world over the last half century or so – the blooming of People Power in the Phillippines, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and the electoral defeat of Communism in Russia among them. Though each of those advances has been followed by setbacks, they all stand as authentic new disclosures of freedom. Since when has the flourishing of the democratic spirit in America been so vital and newsworthy?
Consider also how many other Western democracies attain higher proportions of voter turnout in their elections, combined with fewer symptoms of ballot irregularities, outright fraud, and demeaned political discourse. Consider how far other nations have progressed in eliminating poverty and guaranteeing access to effective health care. Why do Americans not insist more strongly on achieving as much?
These examples make clear that the United States is not the last word on freedom. The good news is that we don’t have to be. When we recognize and celebrate the victories of others in achieving freedom and democracy, we reflect our deepest hopes for the triumph of a virtuous morality. Our capacity to be humbled by our shortcomings and shamed into doing better is palpable evidence of the values we cherish.
In that sense, moral leadership is the business of peers. It is always a contingent status... always desirable, and always available to everyone. Americans can recover authentic moral leadership on behalf of advancing freedom, just as we can bid for co-captainship for the sake of expanding mercy. The Muslims need to find their keys just as badly as we do. Many hands make light work.
There is that nagging question of safety... always desirable, yet precariously contingent on the moral behavior of others. Supporters of Bush’s War prefer to keep close to the comforting light of belligerence because they have so little faith in the very possibility of a lasting political solution, wherever one may look for it. "Invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," insist those who reject diplomatic engagement, trusting only in victory by conquest.
For them, the picture of a secure American future consists in maintaining a capacity to place boots on the ground anywhere anytime, along with the will to stamp those boots in the faces of anyone who would dare threaten our interests. In that case, goes the argument, it doesn’t matter whether our current policies breed enemies faster than we can kill them. It only matters that we resolve to kill them even faster. If we don’t, according to that logic, their swords will soon be at our necks.
It would be naive to expect that every extremist could be converted to accommodation. The point is to marginalize the worst of them and dry up the wells of resentment that breed their recruits. There will always be dangerous malevolent people; there need not always be organized armies of them.
The courage it takes to order young men and women to fight and die is very different than the courage it takes to seek moral leadership. It is not a matter of dismissing fears, but of refusing to be paralyzed by them. Perhaps American military power, fully unleashed, could be employed to locate and kill each and every one of American’s declared enemies. The task would preoccupy us for decades. Just as former allies like Iran and former proxies like bin Laden turned against us, we would have to expect that others will turn against as well. Maybe there would be wars against Europe. Maybe against China. It might never stop.
Perhaps, then, we would be wise to kill all potential enemies preemptively, ruling out no one, as Randy Newman suggested in "Political Science."
Oh, how peaceful it will be
We'll set everybody free
They all hate us, anyhow
So let’s drop the big one now
Let’s drop the big one now
If some morality is inevitably enshrined as a consequence of our choices, then what doctrines will the people of this century bequeath to those of the centuries that follow? Are we trying to prove that our current doctrine of endless war is the proper duty of any future civilization? Or might we try a policy of normalization that seeks, as Sadat did, to break the cycle of war while still promoting our values? It is well within our power to choose a new approach now, just as some far-thinking people decided long ago to bequeath mercy and freedom as their enduring legacies.
We know what is at stake. To be human is to make moral choices. This generation of humanity, like several before us, faces a choice between authoritarianism and freedom. Where Taliban-like dogmatism allows only the freedom to follow or be suppressed, modern democracy allows people the freedom to author their own destinies. Where authoritarians prefer the simple-minded clarity of absolutism, the emotional elation of self-righteousness, and the promise of orthodox purity, liberals understand that a reputation for moral integrity has to be earned each new day, and in different ways for each new generation.
Can there be a morality that unites us all? Say, a planetary morality, a species morality, or a humanistic one? Historical experience shows that attempts to impose a universal morality have often been disasters. Misleading utopian dreams led the way to absolutist nightmares. But experience also teaches that the present morality of tit-for-tat belligerence guarantees the endless spilling of blood. The only thing stopping us from exploring better options is our self-imposed, fear-based paralysis.
The Iraqi people will continue to suffer as long as Shia and Sunni fail to practice the mercy they preach. Many Americans have expressed a desire to stop the killing by standing between the two sides. But we have profoundly undermined our moral capacity to do so by allowing our government to launch this war. In any case, our military’s physical capacity to intervene is nearly exhausted. We’re in a tough spot. We can not deny our culpability in creating the circumstances that triggered the explosion nor our responsibility to mitigate the horror.
Bush says he wants to deliver freedom to the people of Iraq and to all the people of the Middle East. He's never been clear about what freedom means to him, but it would be fair to speculate that he means the kind of freedoms that would appeal to a wealthy Texan... freedom to pay fewer taxes, freedom to organize school prayer, freedom to buy a gun, and freedom to carry that gun to church. Iraqis face different needs, however. One imagines they would prefer freedom from hunger, freedom from kidnapping, freedom from torture, freedom from being run out of their homes, and freedom from being shot and killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our proper course for now would be to offer mercy to the people who have been getting the least of it. Though we can do little to stop the civil war, we can do a lot to alleviate the refugee crisis. We need to accelerate the pace at which we accept refugees from among the Iraqis who have worked with American forces. We need to do more to assist resettlement efforts for displaced persons within the safest areas of Iraq. Furthermore, our government should make the following announcement to the Syrian and the Iranian governments on behalf of the American people:
We know that you are coping with heavy strains from the influx of Iraqi refugees. We are ready to provide immediate aid in the form of basic necessities, medical supplies, and school supplies. We want to find out what other help is needed. It is clear that our governments will be able collaborate more effectively to alleviate this crisis if we also undertake to reduce regional political tensions. Therefore, the United States will seek resumption of full diplomatic relations with Syria and Iran and will act to lift any unilateral trade, travel, and related restrictions that block the exchange of non-munitional materials and the processing of refugees who wish to seek assylum in the United States.
This commitment does not mean that the United States has reduced its interests in bringing about a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, or in promoting human rights throughout the region, or in urging respect for Lebanese sovereignty, or in demanding Iranian compliance with treaties covering the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. All those issues can and will be discussed within a framework that seeks enduring normalization of relations between our states. But negotiation of those issues should not be allowed to shackle efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis, which deserves highest priority.
The historical lesson of the world’s religions is that God’s will is as flexible as our own. Like any supernatural belief system – unmoored from empirical discipline – Islam fosters the proliferation of truth claims. Like any human religion – moored first of all to wishful thinking – Islam expresses the human desire for comfort, wisdom, order and justice. That wish has its own logic, which, over the long run, rewards pragmatism over dogmatism. The people of the Islamic world have the same capacity for wisdom as any of us, and thus the same capacity to remake their culture in ways the most honorable god would prefer.
There is an ancient story about the difference between the religious wars that take place on earth and the spiritual wars that take place in heaven. Though religious wars are quite destructive, as we already know, it is said that during spiritual wars the gods hurl candy and sweet meats at each other, which are left for anyone to pick up and enjoy.
We’ve seen glimmers of that here on earth. Though the Cold War was characterized by catastrophic proxy wars, brutal client states, and a near-suicidal arms race, there was also an ideologically-based competition over which side was better at producing prosperity for its citizens. That competition was at the core of the "Kitchen Debate" between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon, and inspired endless comparisons of economic growth rates, educational achievement, technological innovation, delivery of health services, and the like.
Though the West’s confrontation with reactionary Islam states is also terribly dangerous, it similarly allows for competition in good works. That is the struggle to which we should turn our attention.
 There is yet another version – "Those that have the gold make the rules." Many have argued that current US policy is not a misadventure at all, but a "war for oil" and for related financial profits. By that account, the war is a resoundingly successful strategy through which the ruling oligarchy continues to feather its nest by misleading vast numbers of the American public and exploiting their patriotic impulses. My view, however, is that profiteering should be seen as the "icing on the cakewalk" rather than as the primary motivating substance of Bush’s War: Any group so seriously devious and calculating about making money and preserving its long term power to do so would have done a far better job thinking through the consequences of this war. For Bush and his minions, Manichaeism trumped Capitalism.
 This way a key element within Sadat's program for a "permanent peace based on justice." http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/...
 Ann Coulter, "This is War" September 13, 2001. http://www.nationalreview.com/...
 Normalization means recognizing that standing, security, and wealth are legitimate pursuits of all sovereign governments. It is in the interest of the American people to construct a global political environment in which all people can agree to pursue those interests with mutual respect. Attention to core values - including human rights, peaceful stability, and ethical business practices - offers a solid foundation for this approach. Under those conditions, pursuit of one's own interests presents no fundamental threat to anyone else. Each nation's victory would be welcomed by the others. As a state-centric approach, normalization does not contemplate a policy of reciprocity or accommodation with criminal networks such as Al Qaeda.
Ray Takeyh on Detente with Iran
Suffer the Iraqi children
What Terrorists Really Fear
Constructive Victory, Part 1: Defining US Interests