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Defending America

Salman Rushdie's opinion piece in yesterday's New York Times is good — balanced, informative, and clear-sighted.

America's recent display of strength — both of character and force — and success in avoiding the humanitarian tragedies its critics anticipated has left those critics somewhat at a loss and, perhaps, defensive. There's an art to winning arguments; win them too decisively and your opponent, having no graceful exit, feels compelled to stand in and employ every last means of attack. It seems that more than a few critics of U.S. policy have painted themselves into just such a corner.

Moreover, those who have resented America's strength have now found greater cause for their resentment. "Those elements in the Arab and Muslim world who blame America for their own feelings of political impotence are feeling more impotent than ever," Rushdie writes.

In and of themselves, these effects are not problematic — America has very little responsibility to protect the feelings of its critics and willful enemies, however trampled and hurt those feelings may be. And there is no question that the United States' priority must be to defend itself and protect its interests (which include long-term peace and stability throughout the world).

There is a real risk, however, that discussion of America's role in global affairs will become increasingly political, and polarized, especially if we disregard the criticisms of our allies in Europe. This would have its costs: Valid criticisms would become lost in vitriol, and sincere attempts to respond to them discounted as political maneuvering.

As Rushdie points out, the dispute over the treatment of the detainees in Camp X-Ray is not a good sign. The United States' allies are likely to offer some of the most helpful criticism, both in helping us reach our objectives and in maintaining the integrity of our methods; working with them, and responding openly and honestly to their concerns, can only help us. And simply negotiating the status of the detainees, and demonstrating a willingness to respond to global concerns, would have cost the United States nothing.

Only the United States has the means and the political mandate for appropriate action against terrorism. And that action must be taken; it will be costly, but not so costly as delaying, or shirking it entirely. But America needn't act alone, and shouldn't: We need to do everything we can to keep everyone's eyes on the real enemy, and not allow secondary disputes to split the current consensus or delay our response to useful criticism. If that means working with other nations, accepting some criticisms and responding to others, so be it. The only thing that should matter is ending the terrorist threat.

Addendum: This article from the Economist (of a couple weeks ago) offers some good perspective on these issues, particularly in respect to the validity of recent European complaints, and how some of them, lacking proportion to the actual situation, in fact weaken other, more valid observations about American policies that should at least be reconsidered.

February 5, 2002 12:59 PM


Haven't read Rushdie's article but yours is pretty scary. Critics of U.S. policy have by no means painted "themselves" into a corner, they've been marginalized and almost driven to extinction by the new Inquisition whose banner reads "9/11" and whose King, George the 2nd of the United States of Texas and Florida, has actually found the Holy Grail: inscribed upon it "The War Against Terrorism". There can be no criticism; some of the most tenured Senators quiver and cover their mouthes against the cold wind of the American jihad.

On a personal note, I'm a critic of U.S. foreign policy. When you say that America has little responsibility to protect the feelings of its "critics and willful enemies", I have to wonder at your respect for criticism in that implicit grouping. Moreover, with the current back-to-McCarthy agenda, my feelings are the last thing for which I need protection -- my rights are at the forefront of my concern.

You worry that "discussion of America's role will become increasingly political" and posit that our primary role is to defend ourself and to "protect our interests (which include long-term peace and stability throughout the world)."

Interesting. America's role in world affairs, which only began with our victory in WWII, has always been almost purely political, and the rest of the world already knows this. Our "interests" have strayed far beyond long-term peace and our policies have consistently been aimed at the de-stablilization of specific geographic or ethnic sub-groups, as already revealed by de-classified documents from the Truman through Nixon administrations. Your definition of our interests is as cynical as anti-abortionists who also support capital punishment claiming the high ground of the "right to life."

To give credit where it is due, you made an extremely important point: "Only America has the means and political mandate for appropriate action against terrorism." This should have been two sentences. The "mandate" is the key right now: Even Gilligan, with the Skipper as VP, could have the highest presidential performance rating in history right now. Our own real-life President Gilligan is milking that mandate to present an economically ruinous budget that even Reagan with Alzheimer's Disease couldn't have presented in good conscience; to hide his countless weaknesses in virtually every important domestic issue; to gloss over his Enron connection and subsequent flippancy about the so-called California energy crisis; and generally to ignore or try to erase every social or civil rights advance since 1960. There's the mandate: "9/11" is the best day of Gilligan's life.

As to the means, we don't have the means because we don't have the balls as a public to be honest and look at the implications. We say: we're not at war against Islam and we're actually on the side of the "real" Afghanistan; we have nothing against Iraq, Syria and Libya, but if they're part of the problem, they'll pay; this is not simply a chance to clean up a whole bunch of messes we didn't quite finish or get rid of people who have embarrassed dad and uncle Ron. No....this is the "WAR AGAINST TERRORISM! Plain and simple.

Let's define terrorism. If thousands or millions of people have lived and died in terror -- and the terror was not the result of some primitive imagination -- can we agree that the forces causing this state-of-living were "terrorist"? If we can, we need to take a troubling look in the mirror.

The U.S. has at the very least "aided and abetted" what must be called terrorist activities in countless areas including the middle east, latin america and the far east. For some strange reason, I am unable to place a geographical or racial or religious value on human life. I have been to the World Trade Center Towers and I know people who should've been there on 9/11 but luckily weren't. I don't know people in Lebanon, Nicaragua, Indonesia or East Timor, but I just can't feel in truth that the loss of American lives are more important. 9/11 pisses me off and I want to strike back; the other stuff does too. It all pisses me off to no end. I don't always know who the "they" are that are killing people, but I do know that my definition of "us" does not allow geographic or demographic definition.

If we expect to assume the mantle of "world protector against terrorism" without any moral ambiguity, and expect a blank check from the rest of the world in our right/ability to determine this as-yet-undefined enemy, then we must include ourselves in the clean-up act. The U.S. itself should, in fact, be our own "first target" -- as an act of global good faith, to solidify a global allegiance and alliance in this "war", and as the best way to grease the skids for overall and ultimate victory.

Without question, we are the only country with the means to accomplish that. The frustrated attempts of others, such those perpetrated on "9/11" by desperate but nevertheless reprehensible criminals, apparrently only strengthen our resolve as a nation to stay the present disastrous course.

Posted by Les on February 5, 2002 10:23 PM


You say you are a critic of American foreign policy, but you fail to offer any valid criticisms of our actions in response to the terrorist threat. I am not defending the past; obviously we made some regrettable mistakes. But there is nothing cynical about my stance, nor am I claiming any dubious moral high ground, as you suggest. The fact that previous actions were regrettable has little bearing on the value of our current ones.

The fact is, our actions overseas have been remarkably successful, and at astoundingly little cost -- especially when compared to what we would risk by failing to act.

I am attempting no grand claims of moral authority here, nor do I wish to judge the value of the lives of any people, American or non-. The fact is that we as a people are going about defending ourselves -- whether it is "right" or not, it is a given. I am reflecting on the manner in which we should do so. There are critics, perhaps like you, who will see in our actions confirmations of beliefs they already hold, but we must not let their prejudgments close our eyes to the concerns they have, and must remain ready to adapt our actions and policies, and to account for them.

But, really, there is too much in what you write above for me to properly reply in this space; some if it pertains only tangentially to what I hoped to say. You say you haven't read the article. I suggest you do. My intention was mainly to reflect on its contents, not on the entire realm of issues pertaining to American foreign policy.

Posted by M on February 5, 2002 11:45 PM


Politically I find myself fairly opposite you. I grew up in the 60s and early 70s with a definite liberal stance and thought our country would fall greatly when Reagan was elected in 1980.

I've changed since then. If I consider that I've matured I don't mean to imply that your stance is immature. Not at all. Only that in my path - where like anyone's it hopefully involves maturing - I've grown to be more realistic and more accepting of how things are.

Reagan had his faults. Perhaps his worst was to stratify the classes in this country. But like any person or any societal way of living Reagan also had his strengths. Perhaps his best was to stay firm in his resolve against one of the worst oppressors of human rights in the 20th century: the USSR.

My point is this: your arguments, like many of the very liberal arguments I hear, really come across to me weaker than they would if you could give more than a slight grudging acknowlegment to the fact that the 20th century US society has few peers in human history for the freedoms and positive influences on all of mankind.

You may not have meant it to come across this way, but you actually sound very bitter about this society and its place in post WW2 history. You did give passing mention to our good points, but the overall tone is one that suggests within 2 days of a foreign group committing a murderous act of war on our soil, killing innocent lives from many places, you might have already been blaming us - the American society - for instigating this.

Reality is that there will always be murderous people in the world. There will always be oppressive groups - like the Teleban - who could care less who they take down in their suicidal acts.

The only realistic reaction to such groups must be to defend oneself.

I get very uncomfortable with the rah-rah attitudes. It's like being back in high school again. (But then again, I've learned how true it is the adult worklife is one big high school day!) I also accept realities that demand we look in the mirror first and strive to improve where we can.

But I try to be even-handed about all this. While I acknowledge that we can most certainly improve in foreign policy, I understand our need to defend oneself first. The tone of your post suggests you may not. For me, that only makes your argument weaker.

It's like what black society imposes on me as a WASP. I have no chance with them. I understand that I could never understand the black male experience. But jeez people, that doesn't mean that I can't try to the best of my ability. But when you couch every single thing in racial tones without looking at the SPECIFIC person and SPECIFIC situation, my best response it to turn you off and go on about my way.

One last example, to use your words Les.

"King, George the 2nd of the United States of Texas and Florida"... "Even Gilligan, with the Skipper as VP, could have the highest presidential performance rating in history right now. Our own real-life President Gilligan..."

I'm certainly not defending everything President Bush has done in office. (Especially anything/everything associted with Enron.) But when you choose these words, never use the man's name anywhere, then give virtually NO positive comments on anything this society has done in response to an attack on our soil... well, I can only think that the President could not do anything right in response to 9/11/2001 and you, as a critic of American foreign policy, cannot acknowledge that we can actually do some good.

I'm not trying to make this personal and hope you haven't taken it that way. I actually respect your opinions as you seem very thoughtful and have some important ideas. I'm only trying to point out something that would make those arguments more forceful.



Posted by Dave on February 6, 2002 12:46 AM

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