There are some who contend that the principal difference between President Bush and Senator John Kerry is that one is moved by ethics and ideology, the other by process and pragmatism. In the first of their debates, for example, the president, it is said, laid down an ethical and ideological marker: This war, our war in Iraq, is about freedom. It is about creating a free Iraq, which will then hasten the advent of freedom throughout the Middle East.
I want for a moment to set aside the president’s urgently stated belief that “free nations will reject terror,” a way of joining pragmatism to principle. I want to take his hymn to freedom — he used “freedom” eight times in his remarks during the debate, and “free” 25 times — at face value. It is not at all unreasonable to suppose that when he says that “free nations will answer the hopes and aspirations of their people,” he is entirely sincere.
What is it that causes this “city on a hill” to shine? Why, freedom, of course.
“Liberty Enlightening the World” is, in fact, the formal name of the Statue of Liberty, whose torch is our beacon. So the president could say, and mean: “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century.”
Who would argue with so noble a devotion, so righteous a mission? Yes, we can disagree as to how freedom may best be disseminated, whether by example (look at how successful this continental experiment in freedom has turned out to be) or, now and then, by force of arms (did we not succeed wonderfully in both Japan and Germany?). Yes, we have also done terrible things in freedom’s name, principally, though not exclusively, in Central America. Yes, an imperialist urge sometimes bubbles to the surface, although it is never acknowledged as such and is always defended as a part of our historic mission — a newish version of Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” which, wrote Kipling, included the fighting of “savage wars of peace.”
Indeed, Bush’s famous line about education in America and the need to reject “the soft bigotry of low expectations” might well be applied to our hopes for the Middle East: Why not hold Syria and Iran and Saudi Arabia and the others to the high standards of Western democracy? Why assume that the peoples of the Middle East desire freedom less passionately than we? Do we not do those people a bigoted injustice when we fail to credit them with the same hopes and aspirations we have?
Hence, says the president: “I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man.” And it is presumably for America to give them that chance.
That is the alleged moral case for the war in Iraq, and, though Bush was moved by both, it is independent of the strategic case.
Alas, not so fast: Quite apart from the self-serving, borderline narcissistic view of America that the president expresses and many tens of millions of Americans endorse, and quite apart from the fact that he needs a patina of nobility in a war that most days looks more sleazy than noble, there are at least two very large caveats.
First, it is by no means clear that the people of Iraq “plead in silence for their liberty.” Just now, it is their security that very many of them are pleading for — and that hardly in silence. Like the Israelites in the desert grumblingly longing for their fleshpots in Egypt, there has developed in Iraq an active nostalgia for the days of Saddam Hussein, days of no liberty but also of little street crime and good schools, days of decent medical care and, as happens in totalitarian societies, of stability. Viewed from a distance, whether of time or place, freedom is enticing. But if up close, freedom is cruelly chaotic, its appeal diminishes quite substantially.
Second, Western ideas and practices of freedom are quite alien to the peoples of the Middle East. That has nothing to do with “soft bigotry”; it has, instead, to do with unresolved tensions of modernity.
In the main, ours is a rational secular society. In the main, Middle East societies are based on revelation rather than on rationality. It is not necessarily a sign of respect for such societies and their peoples to insist that they prefer our organizing principles to their own. The science-based secular society that we take for granted as essential to the “good life” is not even embraced by all Americans — witness the argument over stem-cell research — let alone by some billions of people around the globe.
There are those who see modernity’s assumptions and demands as an ongoing and quite unwelcome crusade. And the “best” way to deal with such people and such societies is very far from obvious.
I share the president’s conviction that “freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” But if freedom is not America’s gift to the world, surely it ought not be America’s imposition on the world. Nor are we, ourselves still struggling with the limits of freedom and the meanings of modernity, entitled to appoint ourselves the bearers of God’s gift.
Ironically, Bush himself appears more given to revelation than to rationalism. By all accounts, he is a true believer. In the world of the true believer, there is good and there is evil; complexity is flattened, nuance is lacking — and so, with tragic consequences, is humility.
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).