August 19, 2016

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The most recent military adventure was George W. Bush’s war against Iraq. I have no doubt President Bush was sincere when he said, “€œLet Freedom Prevail.”€ I criticized the war at the time in many”€”too many?”€”newspaper articles, not because I thought it immoral or illegal, but because I feared it wouldn”€™t have the desired result. Few would now deny that the Middle East is in a more ghastly mess now than it was when the war was launched thirteen years ago. That said, thirteen years is a short time in history, though it may be a horribly long time in individual lives, and it may yet be that history will judge President Bush more kindly than his critics do now. My point would be that, no matter what other motives may have inspired the war, it was also an example of American idealism, of the ingrained American belief that liberty and democracy are good things that can be exported.

One can point to other American failures”€”the Vietnam War, for instance. One can remark on the inconsistency that has seen the U.S.A. prop up unsavory dictators in Latin America, Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. One may argue that American foreign policy has been repeatedly driven by realpolitik rather than idealism, and that this, though understandable, even sensible, is a betrayal of the noble principles expressed by the Founding Fathers.

All this may be true; much of it certainly is. It doesn”€™t alter the fact that I was right when I told my Maoist friends that they were talking nonsense about Mao’s China, and that the U.S.A. was the only truly experimental society the world has seen, unique in its devotion to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn”€™t mean that Emma Lazarus”€™ noble lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty overlooking New York Harbor are wrong or out-of-date. On the contrary, they remain perennially true, and it is good, at this present juncture in American history, to remember them:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

That is the meaning of America. Woodrow Wilson was in many respects a dreadful man, but he was surely right when he said that “€œAmerica is the only idealistic nation in the world.”€ Which is why we should all wish it well. It is also why we criticize the U.S.A. more sharply than other nations when it goes wrong, doing so because we recognize what it aspires to be, and know what it means for mankind. We should never forget that, like no other polity, the U.S.A. is a country whose founding documents tell you that you are entitled to pursue happiness, and which is built on the understanding that you are free to make what you will of your life.


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