The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were horrifying. We should never forget the murdered civilians and sacrificed lives of the police officers, firefighters, Flight 93 passengers, and other brave men and women. And it’s likely we as a nation won’t forget, thanks to the work of the national memory system–Hollywood–in depicting for various fictional accounts the events of 9/11.
Unfortunately our more substantial responses are disappointing. Even the war in Afghanistan, mostly a success, has put into power a government so cowed by Islamist tribal leaders that it doesn’t grant its own citizens even basic liberties such as the freedom of religion. And the invasion of Iraq–almost completely irrelevant to achieving the goals of the “war on terror”–has overextended U.S. military resources, sapped international good will, and created greater instability and danger.
Unlike many of his detractors, I think President Bush means well–I don’t believe he’s principally motivated by potential oil profits or other such cynical explanations offered by leftist critics. However, he and his policy advisers have made a number of naive assumptions about Iraq, most especially the assumption that freedom from tyranny is sufficient for democracy to flourish. The opposition party hasn’t countered with any ideas of substance.
What we lack in our foreign policy is realism. Instead we have conflicting and unrealistic ideologies. The political right doesn’t seem to recognize how important are cultural characteristics (as opposed to innate human qualities). The political left seems unwilling to condemn as inferior (and in need of change) those same cultural characteristics that breed violent Jihad. The right holds to an ideology of the innate goodness of mankind: just provide the right conditions, and people will naturally gravitate towards a just society. The left holds to an ideology of cultural relativism: no culture or religion is better than another, so we should just live and let live.
A realistic foreign policy would acknowledge that important cultural differences keep e.g. Iraqis and Afghanis from creating a just, democratic society on their own; it would acknowledge that although the United States has a responsibility to promote peace in the world, its policing powers are finite; it would note that wars with vaguely defined goals usually go badly; it would also admit that while the U.S. as a superpower can do many things independently of other countries, it has always been most effective in addressing serious international problems when working multilaterally. These aren’t new lessons–we learned them in the mid-Twentieth Century. Why haven’t we applied them in the Twenty-first Century?