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Jewish World Review July 10, 2001 / 19 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Exporting American Values

Support for democracy and human rights should be the core of Bush's foreign policy -- FROM the earliest days of American independence, the tension between the laudable instinct to let this country be the bulwark of independence movements around the globe and a sensible caution against getting into other people's arguments has been part of our culture.

In the 1790s, American politics was sharply divided between the proponents of Thomas Jefferson, who thought that support for the French revolution ought to be the touchstone of American foreign policy, and the Federalists, who were more interested in good relations and commerce with Great Britain.

In the decades that followed, as the United States grew in size and power, that debate continued. The notion of American identification with an international democratic movement was not without its contradictions. It was difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to pose as the avatar of democracy so long as human slavery was tolerated within our borders. And as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, our bona fides as freedom's golden child was similarly besmirched by the nation's imperialist phase, as the Spanish-American war gave us colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

But America's vision of itself as the "land of the free and the home of the brave" remained unsullied. As English historian C.E. Carrington noted in his classic history of the British empire, The British Overseas, there was good reason to question the story of the American revolution as one of resistance against tyranny. To a Tory historian like Carrington, America's notion of itself as having been created by a glorious battle against oppression in the name of liberty was more legend than truth.

But Carrington understood that the idea Americans have of themselves was "not a sentimental trifle, it is the deeply rooted, almost instinctive foundation of the American national character . The tale of Troy was a fable and that too built the character of a nation."

Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, in which so many Americans had given their lives to extinguish the twin evils of German fascism and Japanese imperialism (and saving Britain for the second time in 30 years), Carrington saw the roots of this heroic sacrifice in the way Americans read their own history.

"What matters is that the Americans believe themselves to have come into existence fighting for liberty," he wrote. That was, the historian continued, "no unworthy faith, and in that faith they stand for liberty today."

After he wrote those words, the United States would weather a period of sustained cynicism about itself and American values in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that might have rendered Carrington's judgement outdated. But our eventual recovery of our self-confidence would vindicate his sentiment anew, as Ronald Reagan's courageous call for an end to the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union was soon answered by its destruction.

Nearly 12 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, America remains the only world superpower. But neither the administration of George Bush senior nor that of Bill Clinton was able to come up with a post-Cold War foreign policy that could articulate American values, and actually use American power to spread freedom around the globe. George Bush defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, but that victory was tarnished by his willingness to allow Saddam Hussein to remain in power in Baghdad. Nor could we take much satisfaction in the restoration of the monarchy in Kuwait.

Bush and Clinton struggled to figure out what to do about the Balkans as Yugoslavia split up. Though we initially chose to stand by and watch as Serbs and Croats massacred each other and Bosnian Muslims, eventually Clinton chose to intervene against the Serbs --- and actually prosecuted a small war against Serbia in the name of the oppressed Kosovo Albanians. Unfortunately, that supposed blow for liberty merely enabled the Kosovars to oppress local Serbs and fomented a needless, nationalist war in Macedonia that most Americans have managed to ignore.

Equally dismal were the records of Bush and Clinton on China, the world's largest remaining tyranny. The bloody 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing --- and the subsequent determination of the Communist Party to hang onto power --- was not seriously opposed by either president. Instead, we witnessed the rise of a business-led movement in this country that sought to extinguish the idea that American foreign policy should be directed by our human-rights beliefs. This bipartisan coalition currently controls Congress and the White House. Last year's vote to "normalize" trade relations with Beijing seemingly sounded the death-knell for a moral China policy as belief in "engagement" won the day.

But, as we celebrated the 225th anniversary of the declaration of American independence this month, it is impossible to contemplate this historic commemoration without wondering about whether a revival of idealism in American foreign policy is possible. The administration of George W. Bush has enjoyed six months in office, but under the popular yet incoherent leadership of Secretary of State Colin Powell, there is little to indicate a direction or even a motivating ideology at work in Washington.

Yet opportunities for Bush to stand up for American values are not wanting. On China, the worsening human-rights situation --- as well as the shocking detainment of American citizens on trumped-up charges of espionage --- ought to push Bush to do better than his predecessors. An aggressive defense of human rights there, as well as those of the oppressed people of Tibet, might give the often-inarticulate Bush a chance to find his voice.

Another chance for Bush to advance the cause of democracy is in the Middle East. Dubya rightly worries about repeating the hubristic mistakes of Bill Clinton, who sought glory and wound up only making things worse. Instead, he could use the bully pulpit of the American presidency to call for democracy in the Middle East, which, outside of China, is the last part of the world to resist the tide of democratic reform that swept the globe in the last two decades. Indeed, the rise of fundamentalist Islam, which is opposed to Western and American values, poses the greatest threat to the expansion of democracy today.

Americans should look to their own values to guide our policies. Israel is the region's only democracy, while the P.A. is a stereotypical authoritarian tyranny whose guiding principle appears to be the pursuit of terrorism. If Bush is serious about supporting American values --- which are exemplified by Israel's rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe 25 years ago, on the American bicentennial --- then he must make it clear to the Arab world that it will not gain America's friendship until it embraces peace and comes into the family of democratic nations.

In pursuing these policies, George W. Bush has the chance to advance the cause of democracy. Doing so would also add new luster to a great tradition that is worth celebrating every fourth of July --- and every other day of the year as well.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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