The privilege of power
The US is right to oust Hussein - but it must better balance national values with national interests
ST. DAVIDS, PA. — By every indication, the US is about to enter armed conflict with Iraq. Although this will disappoint many of my friends in the faith community, I come down on the side of President Bush, firmly believing that all reasonable avenues of conflict avoidance have come and gone. Armed conflict, the last resort, is imminent. Total disarmament of weapons of mass destruction and regime change through outside intervention are, in my mind, both acceptable initiatives at this time.
After all, war is already under way. Some of the most horrific cables available to me during two years in the State Department had to do with Saddam Hussein's wholesale torture and destruction of theShiite Muslims within his own country. Weapons of mass destruction have already been used. The pictures of gassed Kurds should be indelibly etched on all of our minds. This is one of the most hideous regimes in the past 100 years.
There is, of course, much to be concerned about in the sharp opposition coming from much of the rest of the world. But some of the hand-wringing about antiwar backlash is misplaced.
The obstructionism of the French, for instance, does not represent the moral high ground - their parochial interests in Iraq make all of their philosophical protestations ring hollow. Nor do I think the US lost a great deal with a negative vote in the Turkish parliament. Indeed, the endgame in northern Iraq may be much less complicated and much more amenable to peaceful solution.
And for its part, the UN Security Council's wobbly-kneed posture should not be the overriding worry. Such will always be the state of collective leadership in a body that was created with avoidance of war in mind, sometimes at all costs.
What should concern us all, though, are the issues brought into relief by the massive protests around the world during these past few weeks.
First, the question of "why the world hates Americans" has spawned a veritable cottage industry of publications. Though many come from a left-of-center perspective and are sometimes intent on grinding predicable axes, they are nonetheless provocative and sobering.
The second question is even more troubling: How in the world could the US lose the public-relations battle to a dictator with Saddam Hussein's track record? Hussein gets elevated, not merely as a potential victim but in some casesto hero status, while the leadership of the US is uniformly mocked.
Most disconcerting, however, is the fact that, according to all the polling data, the majority of the world now sees the US as the biggest threat to peace. For those of us who've served America in both peacetime and war and know the values that undergird such service, this defamation of public image is very hard to accept.
America should not be apologizing for being the last remaining superpower. Americans are who they are. By any measure, this status will not change in the foreseeable future. This does not absolve them, however, of their responsibility for understanding the increasing perception of so many in the world today.
Why the growing animus? Why is the list of allies so underwhelming as the US prepares for war? Why the lack of trust in statements prepared by US leaders for international consumption?
It has often been said that the greatest threat to credible human rights initiatives is inconsistency - and America is up to its eyeballs in inconsistency.
American values speak of fair play, the use of the Golden Rule, and the cherished freedoms of religion, association, and press. These are the values Americans hold up to the rest of the world with bold confidence that they can be part of every person's reality.
American interests, on the other hand, revolve largely around economic access and a military that, by and large, is positioned around the world to protect that access. Americans have pursued these national interests with a great deal of success - and they understand power, and how it can be applied toensure that success in the future. Indeed, the US is so powerful that it can be inconsistent in its foreign policy and get away with it. More than any other reason, this is why America is hated today.
The US has the ability to pick and choose: It decides which treaties to enter into and which ones it will break. The US dictates trade agreements. It goes to the UN when that fits its purposes and delays paying dues at the same institution when those purposes are being thwarted. The US shrugs off multiple resolutions from the UN regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but chooses to enforce one with war when it comes to the issue of Iraq.
The State Department reports on religious freedom in 194 countries - but the US is not one of them. America places sanctions on more countries than any five other countries combined.At times, this is done to appease egos on Capitol Hill. But largely, the US employs sanctions simply because it can.
American power comes across as triumphal and knee-jerk, a power that is often media driven and Hollywood portrayed. Honest ambiguity in a complex world is dismissed. Reflective nuance is lost. Instead, America's propagandists hand down Manichaean dichotomy - "us and them," "good and bad," "those who are for us and those who are against." Some would say, with good reason, that the US is well on its way to proving Sam Huntington right. There is, or will be soon, a clash of civilizations.
In all of this, churches and other places of worship have remained largely silent. Theologies are biased by ideology: The American hierarchy of values suggests that it is more important to have a Christian in the White House than a friend in the world. Americans embrace national values while benignly tolerating national interests - and only periodically wonder why these are not one and the same.
The answer to all of this is remarkably simple, but exceedingly difficult to implement. Americans must better understand the world in which they yield so much awesome power. They need to see it honestly, with all of its messiness and ambiguity. They need to strive for consistency, both in their celebration of diversity and their protection of human dignity. They need to do this even if the short-term impact suggests that hard and difficult choices have to be made. If Americans can live with war, they can certainly live with higher prices for oil, for example, and fewer military bases dotting the globe.
Americans need to listen better, decry arrogance, and cultivate humility - all difficult work requiring a major cultural change.
But this is a democracy, and Americans can elevate to leadership people committed to the task.
More than anything else - and for the sake of a peaceful world - Americans need to be uncompromising over their national values when promoting their national interests. Unless these two often disparate entities are better integrated, US foreign policy will too often be as unpredictable as a bunch of nuclear warheads floating around a failed state.
Soon America will fight the battle for Iraq. But there's a much larger war to be won - a war that will raise large questions. Who begins to create greater coherence between national values and national interests? Where can one look for compassionate reflection, thoughtful nuance, and boldness in the face of intractable conflicts? Who begins to bring the pendulum back to a more predictable approach to a complex world, complete with initiatives prompted by best efforts and highest values?
Part of the answer might come from religious institutions. Religion and various sacred terms have been invoked often in the past several months. Certainly the institutions of religion and people of faith need to be able to articulate the reality of the world if that faith and those institutions are to have any credibility. These faith-based communities have to be part of the exercise of effective global leadership, if ultimately they are to be relevant. They need to be participants in the dialogue about universal values. Those values need to be strong enough for the world to move in unison when danger unfolds and human dignity is threatened.
Would such an effort eliminate war? Probably not. No one with even a modest sense of history can question humanity's potential for evil tendencies. Sin has consequences, but common sense and history suggest that those with power determine what will be tolerated. It is this leadership that ultimately writes the rules, defines the terms, and enforces vested interests.
It is incumbent on citizens of the most powerful democracy human history has ever known to make sure - with all of the cultural, institutional, academic, military, and religious instruments available to them - that power is tempered with leadership that is discerning, just, and compassionate. For now, the US has lost a public relations battle. Let's hope its military is much more successful. May all of this happen quickly. Americans have far greater wars to win in the future.
• Robert A. Seiple was the first US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, appointed by President Clinton. He was a captain in the US Marine Corps and flew 300 combat missions in Vietnam. He is founder and president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a think tank in St. Davids, Pa. devoted to developing sustainable environments for religious freedom.