Our President’s new beginning

2009/06/04

Our President has made his highly-publicized speech in Cairo earlier today, and true to form, it seems articulate and upbeat, and appears to have been well-received. [1] Also true to form, it is heavy on rhetoric, but light on anything that could be interpreted as a detailed plan for, well, anything specific. The over-arching theme appears to be that all our problems would go away if we all simply hold hands and work together (otherwise known as diplomacy). Of course, diplomacy has its uses, particularly when all parties to the negotiations know that the alternatives to diplomacy are far less desirable than said negotiations. As to the points made in the President’s speech, he identifies seven specific issues to be addressed:

  • Confronting violent extremism, particularly in its “Islamist” form
  • Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian territorial disputes
  • Enforcing nuclear non-proliferation
  • Promoting democracy
  • Promoting religious freedom
  • Promoting women’s rights
  • Promoting economic development and opportunity

The promoting democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights are, of course, commonly quoted American foreign policy goals, but for the most part, they are not easily achievable without governments that are willing to enshrine these as inviolable principles. I will return to the latter two issues in a little while, not because they are unimportant, but because they require support mechanisms upon which I plan to comment first.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, I have already mentioned some thoughts on this issue in previous posts, so I will defer to statements made therein. The same goes for Iran and its nuclear aspirations.

With regards to confronting violent extremism, this, of course, is a noble goal, particularly when we recall the effects of such extremists on our own interests (i.e. 9/11, various terrorist attacks on our troops and citizens abroad, etc.). Our ongoing experience in Afghanistan, however, indicates that this may not be a wide-enough aim; the ease with which pro-Taliban elements have taken political power, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, indicate that such extremists are just as willing to work through political processes as they are through violent means (though the adherents to each method may not be inclined to participate in both methods). The Palestinians also illustrate a good case for this problem: given the opportunity to democratically elect representatives, they accepted Hamas (yes, that Hamas) as a legitimate political entity, effectively handing over power to a terrorist organization. Part of the problem with such extremists is that they are not nearly as obvious as violent ones, and they are probably harder to fight.

One of the problems here, though it is anathema to most Americans to even speak it, is that Democracy ain’t all its cracked up to be. This is especially true for nations that simply are not ready to accept the responsibilities that it entails. We tend to forget that our form of government is one of the results of centuries of political and philosophical inquiry, without which it likely would not have survived; had it been attempted even a century or two earlier, it might not have succeeded. Additionally, the notion of establishing a theocratic Islamic government (via the implementation of sharia law) may be appealing to even moderate Muslims who feel that they need to preserve their fundamental values against decadent secular forms of governance. Of particular note is that throughout history, Muslim nations have had strong theocratic tendencies from their inception; Western nations, even during the same time periods, have been noticeably more secular in their goals and ideals. Part of this tendency, of course, probably lies in the fact that the Catholic Church was, itself, a political organization through much of its history, and notably more worldly, and somewhat less spiritual, in its manifestation at the same time.

In many ways, it would be difficult to promote many of the liberties we enjoy in a purely theocratic society. Freedom of speech and assembly, and, by extension, the ability to voice protest against the established authority, are particularly difficult to reconcile with a government that assumes an absolute moral authority to carry out its responsibilities. After all, how can one raise questions about a government that bases its authority in the Will of God? Many of the fundamental civil liberties we enjoy find their roots not in religious authority, but in a clear rejection of the moral superiority of any one belief system; rather, our system of secular laws ensures, in part, that all religions are free to pursue their own aims, so long as they do not infringe on the ability for any other group to do the same. It also goes without saying that freedom of religion is far less assured under a theocracy than it is in a secular system of law. Again, a theocracy based on one specific religious institution has a vested interest in actively subverting the legitimacy of any competing religious beliefs.

A substantial difficulty here is that it takes a certain mindset to accept the notion that one’s religious beliefs can co-exist with a secular set of laws that protects their freedom to believe as they choose, but does not guarantee the supremacy of their beliefs over all others. Sadly, even in our society, we are not immune to such efforts – see, for example, the efforts of the so-called Religious Right, one of whose primary goals appears to be the implementation of Christian values as national law. Unfortunately, humans are not necessarily naturally inclined to clearly separate our moral opinions from our political ideals.

In light of this, we encounter a peculiar dilemma, and one that has been already illustrated in the Palestinian situation: if we wish to promote democracy, and nations in which we support such systems freely choose to elect radicals as part of their legitimate governments, can we reject these resulting governments? Do not such governments effectively legitimize the radical perspectives espoused by their duly-elected members? And if we are committed to supporting democracy in all its forms, and to negotiations with any and all nations, what sorts of concessions will we be forced to accept as the cost of doing business with such governments? How much would we willingly concede as we pursue a policy of peace and diplomacy at all costs?

Don’t get me wrong: I do not mean to downplay the importance of diplomacy in modern international relations, nor of promoting the civil liberties we enjoy, but focus on the one does not necessarily guarantee that the latter will succeed. Methinks, sometimes, that it would be simpler if we were to find ways of sustaining our Republic while not entangling ourselves with such troublesome parts of the world, but of course, we cannot afford to isolate ourselves, right? While they are noble aspirations, I do not feel that it is our responsibility to enforce international conformance to our standards of civilization. Of course, in light of the President’s comments regarding economic investment in the region, we are clearly on a path towards even greater entanglement for years to come. Alas.

Notes:

[1]: Full transcript of the speech available here, from CNN (PDF warning: its 16 pages, but only 58 KB – all text).

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