Universalist America And the Middle East

PRESIDENT Bush, correctly, is seeking to put the United States's Gulf venture into a more universal context. The US cannot allow itself to get bogged down for months in desert sands. Bush is casting widely afield for support among NATO allies, Arab and Muslim countries, and Japan. Britain was first in, followed by France in a big way, and Germany and Canada. The Soviet Union and China are cooperating. The forward role of the United Nations has been impressive.

America's friends have an interest in its not going it alone. If Western Europe wants a continued US military presence, it must join the US now in the Mideast. Ditto Japan in the Japan Sea and along all the shipping routes getting there. If the Gulf crisis pushes the US into recession, its trading partners will suffer too.

Universalizing the containment of Iraq can reduce the anti-Americanism already simmering in the region. Much of this anti-US hatred defies reason. It can be attributed partly to US support of Israel; to the price of power (``If the US is mighty and does not help me, it must be my enemy''); and to history: The US has often cloaked economic expansionism in democratic ideals. It has covered racism in paternalism.

President Bush describes America's stake in the Persian Gulf in terms of superpower credibility and economic vitality; absent is a clear frame of reference for the Arab world itself. The region is a polyglot of workers from the Philippines, Egypt, and Asia. Women are subjugated. Can sheikdoms survive the pressures for change? Saddam Hussein has acted badly. Picturing him as a Satan reinforces the belief that America is hopelessly alien to Arab interests - the stuff that millenial hatred is made of.

The US has not always understood its own motives, or what moves the peoples it fights against or for. This was true of Vietnam. It has characterized American history.

On the eve of the Civil War, the South eyed Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba and ``dreamed of new slave states that would preserve its strong voice in Washington and its weight in national politics,'' writes historian Michael H. Hunt in ``Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy'' (Yale University Press, 1987). In the North two decades later, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts exhorted Americans to greatness with ``a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the nineteenth century.'' He spoke of America's competition for ``the waste places of the earth.''

A hierarchy of race and cultures has characterized American political thinking. A geography of 1789 depicted blacks as ``a brutish people, having little more humanity but the form.'' A century later they were still thought to be hopelessly backward.

Preoccupation with race was seen in the treatment of the ``Indians,'' a catch-all term for the several thousand different native-American cultures. Spanish Americans fared little better. Thomas Jefferson thought members of the Spanish colonies were ``immersed in the darkest ignorance, and brutalized by bigotry and superstition, ... as incapable of self-government as children.'' John Quincy Adams's views were carried in a Boston publication in 1821: ``What sympathy or concern can Americans have for people of a different stock, law, institution, religion? Their violence, laziness are but the natural consequence of the degeneracy of a mixed race, ruined by tyranny, and afflicted by the evil influence of tropical climatic conditions.'' To Henry Clay, Mexico was a ``place of despotism and slaves, of the Inquisition and superstition.''

The anti-Latino legacy is sensed in clashes with Castro's Cuba, the purge of Noriega from Panama, the ``domino'' crush of Hispanic immigrants imagined by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and promotion of English as an official language.

Even today America appears ambivalent about recognizing itself as a nation of immigrants. A half million newcomers arrive legally each year from Asian, Hispanic, African, and Middle Eastern countries. Others arrive illegally. Asian-limiting quotas are sought for campuses. Detroit disparages Asian-made cars.

American achievement is not in freedom from the prejudices that afflict the world but in progressively rising above them. How interesting that the US is becoming the country of the future - a microcosm of the world community - at the same time it is promoting a more universalist approach in the Mideast.

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