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World’s lone superpower bumps into itself

In the final analysis, our response to the awful events of last Sept. 11 is as much about the United States -- who we are, how we view ourselves in the world, what we want from the world -- as it is about terrorists and the tortured country of Afghanistan.

A kind of unsettling undercurrent exists in which we recognize that after a year in which the United States sent Al Qaeda scrambling and freed the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban there yet seems so little to cheer about. Perhaps that feeling persists because conducting the war was the easy part.

We knew our role. We knew our lines. Generals would come onto prime time briefings and declare: “We have gained air superiority over Afghanistan.”

One would hope. The outcome would seem predictable when the world’s most intimidating power with the latest technology takes on a primitive force without airplanes and with antiquated weapons.

But what now?

The answer seems to be: More war. We are being primed for an open-ended, ill-defined campaign against whatever we declare to be evil.

What has proved a rallying point for Americans and the world, however, is beginning to wear thin. “My administration has a focus,” Mr. Bush declared as he initiated the war on terrorism. The focus, however, has become unacceptably narrow and devoid of the kind of ideas that can continue to convince people of the rightness of the campaign. Our allies are distancing themselves, old coalition members are wary. No one likes a unilateralist who abrogates treaties and makes rules on the run, demanding that everyone comply or be viewed as “against us.”

Certainly the language -- of rights and freedoms and the echoes of our founding documents -- has been part of the pitch, but it is not succeeding in convincing the rest of the world.

New York Times columnist and Middle East expert Thomas L. Friedman recently argued that what was missing from the Bush administration’s conversation about Iraq policy was not only a certain gravity (he was referring to Bush’s pronouncement from a golf course in Texas) in the presentation, but also a lack of political content -- “in particular how we talk about democracy.”

“Many Arabs are wondering: Why is America pursuing democracy only in Iraq?” Friedman wrote. “Maybe it’s because America really doesn’t care about democracy in the Arab world, but is just pursuing some naked interests in Iraq and using democracy as its cover.

“Ditto in the West Bank. The Bush team is pushing democracy on Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, but it will not utter a word against an Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank that helps poison the atmosphere there, empowering Palestinian radicals and weakening the liberals.”

The central point Friedman makes is that Bush policy today appears to use democracy as a punishment for authoritarian regimes opposing America as it maintains silence about friendly anti-democratic regimes, “a sure-fire formula for giving democracy a bad name.”

The contradictions in talking about and applying democracy tests are but the tip of the inconsistency iceberg in the Middle East. For if we intend ever to match the force of ideas and arguments with our force of armaments, we immediately run into ourselves as our most formidable obstacle.

Our history in the region -- from CIA-generated coups to manipulation of politics and wars to serve our purposes -- may not be the stuff of everyday conversation for Americans, but those facts of history underlie the assumptions of the people of that region.

They know our inconsistencies, even if we don’t, and they also know that we would hardly care what kind of regimes were in place if our overriding interest in access to the region’s oil were not jeopardized.

Thus the real challenge is not how to impose our will. We can do that because at the moment we are the most powerful and the richest. The stiffest challenge is how to live up to our own democratic principles while preaching them to others.

We are not making that argument in any convincing way today because our actions belie such intentions. In order to make that argument we would have to ask far deeper and more disturbing questions than we have been willing to face as the world’s lone superpower.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002