The Rockaway Irregular
We all like to think well of ourselves, both of our motives and our actions; as Fourth of July celebrations loom once more, most of us want to think well of our country, too. Recent statements by President Obama as he has visited overseas, statements involving the acknowledgement of American overreach and promises of a kinder and gentler America going forward give pause for thought. Writing recently for the conservative online blog known as UrbanElephants.com, author and former New York State gubernatorial candidate Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute think tank and New York University professor emeritus, noted morosely that, while "President Obama can apologize and apologize again and many Americans can applaud . . . (we cannot) . . . ignore, forget or rationalize away American heroism."
London has a point. Many of us have learned throughout our lives that America has been a force for good in the world, especially since the two World Wars of the last century when our soldiers fought and died for others on foreign soil, leaving freedom and the road to prosperity for those we liberated with American blood, in our wake. Sure we've made mistakes and not always been good to other peoples or nations (think of the Indian wars or the 19th century war with Mexico) but on balance, and as we've matured, we have grown into a benevolent presence on the world stage, leading the way to the establishment of the United Nations and working to promote a stable international society.
Unfortunately this is not the way some in this country see our history and certainly not how many others across the globe see us. Many see and remember America's aggressions only, while treating our efforts to improve the lot of others today as just another masked form of the old nineteenth century Manifest Destiny. Deposing Saddam Hussein, despite the Bush administration's efforts to portray it as liberation in the World War II mold and our introduction of democracy there, was and is seen by many in the Arab world, and elsewhere around the planet, as nothing more than a boorish effort to impose our way of life on others in order to better control them.
Of course, a case can be made for such an interpretation, a case that is harder to argue against, given the natural ambiguities surrounding nearly all actions a nation, any nation, must take. After all, we didn't set out to liberate all states when we undertook to remove Saddam, and the argument from the left is that we only did that to better secure our control of the oil rich Middle East. Well, of course we were concerned about the oil. As a nation we have interests, too. But the issue is how those interests are expressed and implemented. Bush let too much hang on creating a real democracy when he might have gotten a quicker and more satisfying outcome by flipping the country to a friendly dictator of our own choosing.
But then he would have opened himself to charges by his political enemies (of whom there were, and apparently still are, a great many) that he never really cared about introducing democracy and freedom in Iraq, that it was all a ruse, etc., etc. But wait, didn't they say that anyway? The bigger problem, though, now that Bush has been replaced by a man who has greater sympathy for (and from) various overseas constituencies, lies in how Americans see themselves.
President Obama represents a viewpoint that wants to acknowledge the wrongs this country has done. And, from its aggressive nineteenth century expansionism, from slavery to the Jim Crow laws that persisted into the twentieth century in parts of this land, from America's past history of gunboat diplomacy in various parts of the world, we certainly have plenty of mistakes to think about and acknowledge. But Herb London poses the interesting question of whether an American president should ignore such blots on our past when speaking about and for the nation he was elected to lead, especially when directing his words to those abroad who want to see their worst beliefs about our nation confirmed.
Should an elected American leader, in his capacity as president of the entire country (not just a core constituency obsessed with America's mistakes), take it on himself to confess our sins? Is a mature America's regard for the rights and freedoms of other peoples, its commitment to global stability, enough justification to ignore the unpleasant memories of our past? The left seems to be constitutionally opposed to such a notion. It's an article of faith among them that America is wrong, wrong, wrong — that it's a bully ruled by big money without true democracy, etc., etc., despite the evidence of free speech we have before us every single day in this country and the fact that our presidents step down when they're supposed to rather than trying to rewrite our constitution to allow them to hang on, or to suppress dissident demonstrators with bullets in the street.
In fact, there's a massive disconnect between the way most Americans view (or want to view) this country and the way those on the left apparently view it. In this, the left looks to be more in sync with those overseas who resent us for who and what we are, than they are with their fellow citizens who still believe in the American experiment. As another Fourth of July rolls round, we need to remember America's virtues as well as her vices, past and present, and recognize how fortunate we are to live in a country where elections aren't rigged in advance (despite accusations from America haters), a nation where you can take your claims before a fair and generally just and impartial legal system court and expect a fair adjudication . . . even if the outcomes aren't always the ones you sought. Happy Fourth! firstname.lastname@example.org.