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Best and Worst America This Week

Best and Worst America This Week
by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 9 Jan 2008

BEIRUT -- Immediately after the 9/11 attack against the United States, President George W. Bush and many other perplexed, angry, and often ignorant Americans asked a question -- "why do they hate us?" -- and made a statement: "You're either with us or against us."

This week, those Americans who are actually interested in answering the question -- and exploring the validity of the statement -- have a very good opportunity to grasp precisely why most people around the world admire the United States but detest many aspects of its foreign policy. This revelatory moment comprises two simultaneous events this week: the competitive American presidential primaries, and Bush's journey to the Middle East. The contrast between the two events is substantial, and very revealing of the best and worst of American political culture.

The primary campaigns and elections are a spectacular display of a vibrant, rigorous democracy, whose many benefits clearly outweigh its few faults. The world -- myself included -- stands in awe and admiration before this spectacle that affirms the principle that power and authority are vested in the citizenry.

American democracy is impressive for allowing any aspiring leader to throw his or her hat into the ring, leaving the decision for voters to make after the aspirants are rigorously and repeatedly tested and questioned. On the downside, of course, if you have a lot of money, your hat moves into the ring more quickly and with a lot more media coverage -- though charlatans rarely get very far in the process.

The mass sentiments of ordinary citizens in rural and small states are thrown into the electoral mix with the influence of big money, organized groups, serious domestic and foreign lobbies, and political party machines. The most admirable aspect of this element of American democracy is how -- with only a few exceptions -- it puts into practice the principle of the consent of the governed.

The vibrancy and worldwide respect for American democracy is offset, however, by the actual conduct of American foreign policy by democratically-elected leaders. President Bush's current trip to the Middle East affirms everything that is wrong about American foreign policy, and everything that is flawed about American democratic policy-making at home, for several reasons.

The first is that Bush's administration seems to prefer using force, threats and sanctions, rather than democratic elections or diplomatic engagement, as a main means of pursuing legitimate national interests. American military bases, secret prisons, outsourced torture chambers, and covert operations around the Arab world and Asia are expanding at a rapid rate, while American democracy activists and public diplomacy officials are widely viewed around the region as anathema. Bush also seems more motivated on this trip by fostering antagonism -- and perhaps war against Iran -- than by trying to synchronize American and Arab-Iranian mass demands for dignity, democracy and stability.

Second, the United States seems to prefer to continue supporting autocratic leaders, especially in the Arab world, who run variations of security and police states, while vigorously opposing those mass movements that articulate grievances in the vocabulary of Islam. This tendency to preach democracy but to strengthen autocrats and authoritarians around the world makes the itinerant American champion of democracy look more like a false prophet than a man of truth.

Third, Washington refuses to accept the verdict of democratic Arabs when they elect movements like Hamas to power. This exposes the American call for democracy as an insincere and limited franchise when the rights of Arabs run up against the rights of Israelis. Washington seems to say that Arab democracy is OK only when the policies of elected leaders conform to American-Israeli priorities.

Fourth, the American official policy of guaranteeing Israel's might over all combined Arab countries reflects a deeper flaw: Washington's affirmation of Israeli rights as taking priority over the rights of all people and countries in the Middle East to live in peace and security according to the rule of law -- in this case international law and conventions, and UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

If you preach majority rule and the rule of law as a desirable global norm, but refuse to respect it when Israeli interests are concerned, you come across as a hypocrite at best, and a deceitful cheat at worst.

This is why much of the world rejects the simplistic attempt by some Americans to ask if we are with or against the United States. Speaking for myself -- and maybe for somewhere between four and five billion other human beings, I would guess -- I would respond "yes" to both. We are with the American principles we witness in practice in the United States these days, and against American policy as it is practiced by the roving American president in the Arab-Asian region these days.

It reminds us that the greatest thing about democracy in America is that every few years you get a chance to throw the rascals out.

Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.

Copyright ©2008 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global
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