I was in Washington, DC in the late summer of 2006 showing a Palestinian friend around, and I remember looking down the street at the US Capitol building. The intricate white dome soared into the sky, a breathtaking beacon of possibility that left both of us, for a moment, speechless.
It was shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, a chilling bout of carnage that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, including hundreds of children. Entire families were incinerated in their cars as they fled the heavy bombardments, all while Washington blocked any attempt at a ceasefire. The trauma was all the more unbearable because of its utter pointlessness. The stated objective was to neutralize Hezbollah. Immediately after and up until now, Hezbollah has only been gaining strength.
I turned to my Palestinian friend and said with real pain, “I was raised to respect what this building is supposed to stand for. Freedom. Democracy. Opportunity. But now… It’s all superimposed with bound men being terrorized by attack dogs. With families lying on the side of the road, charred beyond recognition.”
My Palestinian friend sighed. “I was, too. I always thought there was one place in the world where things were fair. Where everyone had a chance. A place we could aspire to be like. But now…”
A few nights ago I was in a club talking with an Albanian friend and a Turkish friend. The Albanian (who was born and raised in Germany) was talking about a recent visit to Kosovo, and how Albania and Kosovo were two of the few remaining countries in the world that steadfastly love the United States of America.
“I remember when George W. Bush visited one time after some economic conference in Europe,” he said. “The people in the European countries all hated him, they were protesting, yelling, insulting him. Then he came to Albania, and everyone was waving American flags and trying to hug him and kiss him. He looked so happy!” He laughed. “It almost made me identify with Bush. Just to see him as a human, looking so happy.”
“It wasn’t because they like him,” I said contrarily.
“Of course. It was because of Clinton [bombing Serbia in what’s widely believed to be the first war fought on humanitarian grounds]. But it doesn’t matter. People really appreciate what the US did.”
My Turkish friend said, “I know exactly when Turkish public opinion of the United States reached its highest level. It was after the earthquake in Turkey in 1999, when Clinton was visiting some of the villages that were hit hardest. Someone handed him a baby, and the baby started playing with his nose. And he just smiled and stood there while the baby played with his nose. At that moment everyone loved him, because he was just being human, and you could see that.”
The Albanian said, “People love the US, really. You guys are much more open to outsiders than Europe.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said. “But the stereotype here is that Europeans are so much more enlightened than Americans.”
He shook his head. “It’s not the case. Look, I was born in Germany, I’m more educated than most Germans and I speak exactly like a German. But as soon as someone hears my name, his expression changes and he asks, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ Because they know no ‘real’ German could have my name. And I don’t want to raise kids in a place where I know we will never be accepted. Here, it’s different. Nobody cares where you’re from. You have a great country, really. Everyone knows it’s the best place in the world for immigrants willing to work hard. It seems that even the Arab world likes America. It’s just this thing with Israel/Palestine, and Iraq and the other stuff.”
“I know. I lived there for two years, and everyone said the same thing: We love America, hate the policies. What’s funny is, the policies don’t even make sense. Think about it: What does a country need to be successful? Jobs at home, a good educational system, not spending all your money on wars…”
“And having a lot of allies who stand with you. I mean, who really stand with you. Not who just do what you say because you give them money or threaten them.”
“Yeah! China’s totally laughing at us right now. We’re destroying our own power, for no good reason.”
And who is leading the US toward weakness and irrelevance? The Obama Administration’s halting, out-of-touch response to the Egyptian uprising and its humiliating veto of a UN resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements (which carefully and cleverly used only wording that the US itself uses in official policy statements) revealed more clearly than ever who’s in charge: corporations and special interest lobbies (many of whose ideologies are employed, wittingly or not, at the behest of corporate interests).
They have ensured that innovation in vital areas like alternative energy have practically ground to a halt and real wages in America have stagnated since the 1970s while the rich get vastly richer and the teachers and schools and public health clinics and other services for poor and ordinary people are told they must ‘cut back’—the same IMF and World Bank policies that have brought ruin to much of the so-called Third World.
In short, writes Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Congress and the president are now in gridlock; the American system is flooded with corporate money meant to jam up the works; and there is little suggestion that any issues of significance, including our wars, our bloated national security state, our starved education system, and our antiquated energy supplies, will be addressed with sufficient seriousness to assure the sort of soft landing that might maximize our country’s role and prosperity in a changing world.”
But there’s reason for hope, and that hope has an address: Tahrir Square. At this moment, when the Arab world is waking up and realizing things don’t have to carry on as usual, perhaps it’s time for us to do the same.
Ironically, the computerization of the world has led to a more human world. We’re still the same animals with the same brains programmed by our evolution as a species that has spent most of its history in small tribal units. And our natural human affinity for an ‘in-group’ is rapidly expanding to take in the entire world on the level playing field of independent and social media. It’s not rationally tenable to believe we’re fundamentally different or better than other people after we’ve seen enough videos of them holding up hilarious protest signs in Tahrir Square that speak to our deepest values.
With the rise of independent and social media, individual human consciences have more power than they’ve ever had in the history of humankind. Which means that power now, more than ever, comes from the most elemental source—being human, being honest, being real, and speaking to the values shared by the vast majority of human beings. People can tell, and they respond to it.
They responded to it in Barack Obama when he was campaigning for President. When he wrote his great books. When he spoke to us like adults. Which is why it came as such a disappointing shock when he took office and immediately started talking like a politician rather than a leader. It wasn’t because he failed to be a super-liberal. Anyone paying attention knew he wouldn’t govern as a lefty. It was because he stopped being human. I would almost welcome him backing a policy I opposed, if only he did it while telling us the real reasons he was doing it instead of bowing to special interests while spouting platitudes. That kind of thing turns the stomach of any thinking adult.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. My Palestinian friend in 2006, my Turkish and Albanian friends, and every Egyptian who dreams of a better world—all of these people long for the US to live up to its potential, its values, the leadership role it could have if only we would seize it, instead of being buffeted in the tides of business interests presiding over a system so broken, it’s beginning to eat itself.
Those vaunted ‘business interests’ are just systems, and those systems are composed of human beings. And the people of Egypt showed us just how illusory a seemingly unshakeable power can suddenly prove to be.
The US can continue down this road until it goes the way of Hosni Mubarak, despised and deposed in a convulsion of disgust after a long and increasingly cruel disengagement from reality. Or we can realize that we, as citizens and globally-connected human beings, have more power than we can imagine, and we don’t have to let remote and unaccountable powers decide our fate.
Our politicians can begin to fathom that, as long as everyone is afraid to raise their head for fear of being decapitated, the lobbies automatically win. But if enough of them make a decision to speak to their constituents like adults, and be genuine and honest, and get votes the old-fashioned way—by upholding the public interest—instead of through deceit and ideological distortions and cash, the lobbies will no longer enjoy an easy stranglehold.
Personally, I would like to restore enough of America’s prestige that we won’t end up unwilling subjects of whatever superpower comes along next and whatever values they happen to possess. I want our best values—liberty, democracy, justice, innovation, truth-seeking, equality, tolerance, humility, and an optimistic belief in the better angels of human nature—to be represented on the world stage, because I believe in those values. It just so happens that what we need to do in order to remain relevant is also the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.
Of course, a foreign policy based on values needs legitimacy, which means honesty and consistency. We can’t try to impose democracy on Iraq while stifling it in Egypt and undermining it in Palestine. We can’t preach clean governance and then commute Scooter Libby’s sentence. The world is not stupid. And we can’t count on them being complacent much longer.
The longer we wait, the more moral power we lose, and the harder our crash landing with reality will be—and the less we will have a say in how the world is run once the American Century is over. No one expects us to be perfect, and we never will be. But if we can begin to get out of the grip of corporations and lobbies and show leadership based on the timeless progressive values for which the world loves us despite our flaws, we can remain great on the world stage for a while yet, and be worthy of that greatness.