Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Halifax Chronicle Herald

Bush must heed wise words from past

By Brian Lee Crowley

WHEN “IN THE course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

So spoke America’s founders in the very first paragraph of the first official document of the new American republic, the Declaration of Independence. The first concern of these harbingers of a new world to come was to show a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. They felt the need to justify themselves before their fellows, seeking their good opinion.

But that decent respect for the opinions of others always wars with another value in the American breast: the need to remain free of foreign entanglements and commitments, so that America need never depend on anyone for the defence of the republic, its people and the values they hold dear.

America always vacillates between these two poles, between openness and engagement in the world, and the fear that too great an involvement with foreigners will sap American strength and prevent it from vigorously and single-mindedly pursuing and defending its vital interests.

Sept. 11, that black day whose first anniversary we mark today, was, in retrospect, one of those moments when the delicate balance shifted markedly in favour of suspicion of the outside world. A decent respect of the opinions of mankind, especially among the country’s political leadership, has clearly slipped down the list of priorities.

In this President George W. Bush has played a decisive role. In a political system obsessed with checks and balances, the institutional power of the presidency within the machinery of government often seems quite limited. But where the power of a president can be almost unparalleled is in the ability to draw out selected strands of the American character, especially in times of crisis. Because the president is not merely a political leader, but is the human face of the American experiment, the one person democratically empowered to speak for the nation, his ability to set the emotional tone and temper of his time is truly remarkable.

President Bush has used his power well to help bind Americans together in the face of the terrorist attack, while not giving presidential sanction to a backlash against Arab Americans. Through strong action in Afghanistan and efforts to beef up domestic security, he has been a key factor in allowing Americans to regain a great deal of the confidence and optimism so badly shaken a year ago.

But his administration has also seemed too ready to strike a note of contempt and mistrust of the outside world. Whether it is agricultural subsidies or steel tariffs or negotiations on a new round of international trade negotiations or environmental issues, or now the much-mooted threat of military intervention in Iraq, American incomprehension at and impatience with foreign doubts about its goals have reached disquieting levels.

Even something as simple as the recent G-7 summit in Canada is not exempt. The president’s men demanded special access for the White House press corps, and shouted abuse and expletives at the Canadian organizers when they insisted on fair access for all media.

This is no paranoid bleating from the left about the evils of American power in the world, because I believe that American power and the American presence is, as The Economist said the other day, fundamentally a force for good in the world. But that force for good must itself constructively engage the rest of the world; it can only achieve the good of which it is capable by taking seriously the need to weigh others’ interests and feelings in the way that power is exercised.

Naturally, in a post-Sept. 11 world, no one risks as much as the United States. America cannot be expected to sacrifice its own safety to placate prevaricating French or German or Russian politicians.

But American power has achieved its greatest successes when it has honestly and openly sought common cause with allies around the world, in two world wars, in the formation of NATO and the world trading system, in Korea, in the Cold War, the Gulf War and most recently in Afghanistan.

America’s closest ally, British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as a majority of U.S. public opinion are urging the formation of a broad international coalition against the real threat posed by Iraq. That alone should cause the Bush administration to redouble its so far reluctant efforts. If their case is good, they will find, and they will deserve, allies in the fight against Saddam Hussein, and they will find their country’s power, prestige and security in the world heightened as a result. A decent respect for the opinions of mankind, as the American founders knew, is a sign and source of strength, not weakness.