Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Idealistic Thoughts on Charitable Foreign Policy

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought of posting another ‘vintage poem,’ an inelegant critique written four years ago today against the romance-obsessed culture of Christian undergrad campuses. But, having already subjected you to one old poem, and since I can do much better now (at least in terms of style), I refrained. Instead, I’ve decided to venture into a new topic, one ruled and motivated by the great theme of love—I refer, of course, to politics.
Now politics is an area that I have very little formal training in, but it seems to be the sort of thing where anyone with an opinion deserves to be heard (at least in democratic societies and as long as you’re not a racist). And the beautiful thing about politics is that no matter what you say, someone somewhere will disagree with you. So feel free to send comments and disagree as liberally as you like.
I listened to part of President Bush’s news conference this morning, and what struck me was that the rule of absolute self-interest motivated both sides of the issues at hand. It’s understandable—Bush is part of a representative government selected to look after the interests of America, and so every decision made will be made (ideally) on the basis of America’s good. Bush was saying this morning that the reason we’re keeping troops in Iraq is that if we don’t, a power vacuum will form in which unstable terroristic elements can spawn all the more (I’ve reworded his phrasing slightly). And, as we all know, terrorists are bad for America.
The other side of the debate, represented by those who advocate the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, also cite national self-interest. Our plan isn't working in Iraq, so we should cut our losses and get out before things get worse. Why should more American soldiers die for a political mistake, a mistake which, by most reports, has engendered even more anti-Americanism in the Muslim world? Jim Wallis called Bush’s recent plan for more troops in Iraq ‘criminal.’ It’s not technically criminal, since Bush is the commander-in-chief, but I suppose Wallis meant that Bush’s power is derived from the people, and that he’s purposefully ignoring the apparent will of the majority of the people in this matter. However, from what I’ve heard, calls for troop withdrawal certainly never go further than national self-interest.
This is entirely understandable and perhaps the only politically feasible way of running a country, but it isn’t as I would like it to be. I was in Sudan during the early months of 2004, when American forces were consolidating their control of Iraq and, at the same time, committing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I can remember sitting in the shade of an acacia tree with a group of Sudanese men, trying desperately to explain why the US was doing these things. They were all convinced that the US wanted to control the Middle East’s oil, and some also opined that this was Bush’s personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein. I tried to make the US sound somewhat noble—that we had invaded Iraq to give the people relief from a sadistic and genocidal regime—but none of them were buying it.
My question is, why can’t the US run politically on a more charitable level? Americans have, in general, been a very charitable people over their history (though certainly not as much as they could or should be). Why can't it be a valid political argument that we stay in Iraq as a stabilizing force until the Iraqi government has enough strength to stand on its own, for the good of the Iraqi people? This seems to be a fair question, since the majority of the violence in Iraq right now is not due to American presence (though admittedly some of it is). Rather, it's the result of long-running religious tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, a problem that the Bush administration certainly should have foreseen. My contention, then, would be that the American forces are currently doing more good than harm, since their removal would allow these Sunni-Shiite conflicts to expand, perhaps reaching the level of a mutually genocidal civil war. We saw that sort of racial/ideological genocide between Hindus and Muslims when the removal of British occupying forces left a power vacuum in India last century. Surely there's some place for charity in foreign policy. Many would recognize that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was probably, insofar as it can be judged as an isolated event, a good thing. It was good for the cause of justice in Iraq. So why can't we say that American troops should be kept in Iraq as a service to the Iraqi people? That's not to say that the situation might not continue to disintegrate, but it almost certainly will do so if we leave.
The problem some would bring up is that we have no obligation to shed our own blood for these people, many of whom don't want us there at all. That's true--we have no political obligation, but I would contend that we do (or should) have a moral obligation. Further, I would say that other countries, and probably the UN itself, should now step in. They may not have agreed with the initial premise of the Iraq war, but that war has now morphed into something different, and they could be of tremendous help in establishing peace.
A political system that operates merely on national self-interest will always result in tensions, inequities, and wars. Why not encourage America to embrace a foreign policy of grace, leading to relationships of mutual reciprocity? We have more wealth than any civilization in the history of the world. Why not use that wealth in a much more radical way, to give so much that it forces us to scale back our current lifestyles while raising the standard of living around the world? Economic stability and equity will do wonders for the global pursuit of peace. Why not send out informal ambassadors by the hundreds of thousands, not to impose American imperialism on the world, but to work alongside other countries in actively fighting poverty and injustice? That, if it could be done with grace and with respect for native cultures, would do great things to better the public perception of Americans around the world. We, as a people and probably as a nation, do need to be less self-centered and more charitable. This would be a much more self-sacrificial foreign policy (not to mention a complete cultural revolution), and one that might not work, but it would certainly do more to foster peace than what we're doing now.