Wednesday, November 09, 2005

“We do not torture”

President Bush meanders through the landscape of international affairs displaying an astonishing disregard for history. This week, President Bush traveled through America’s backyard, imploring leaders there to join in the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, but in his travels faced resistance both on the street and in the official meetings.

At a news conference in Panama, President Bush looked down from the lectern in response to a journalist’s question, and asserted to his Latin American hosts, with no sense of irony, “Any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.”

Speaking in Brazilia, he challenged Latin American nations to choose “between two competing visions” of their future, an American “vision of hope” and a darker vision––embodied by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez––that “seeks to roll back the democratic progress of the past two decades.”

“Only a generation ago, this was a continent plagued by military dictatorship and civil war, yet the people of this continent defied the dictators, and they claimed their liberty."

Bush’s words rang with sincerity and conviction. But like a visitor from Brigadoon, awake after a 100-year slumber, he gave no hint of recognition of America’s history in Latin America. For the people of Latin America, that plague was an American plague. Those dictators, those were our dictators. The U.S. Army School of the Americas based at Fort Benning, Georgia, trained the armies and police of the Latin American nations that crushed indigenous resistance. With his disregard for that history, Bush’s words, intended perhaps to inspire, came across instead as hectoring and self-righteous.

In a similar vein, President Bush launched us into war in Iraq, casting us as liberators bringing liberty to a repressed people. We entered the Moslem world as if it was a tabula rasa, as if we did not have a history there; as if their borders were not crafted in the back rooms of Western colonial powers; as if the autocratic families in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq did not draw their support from us; as if the Donald Rumsfeld who led the armies of America to depose Saddam was not the self-same man who sat by Saddam’s side and offered aid in his war with Iran, and looked the other way as he killed his own people; as if it was not our CIA that led the coup that deposed Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected Prime Minister of Iran, after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and installed in his place the Shah and trained his Savak secret police.

For the peoples of Latin America, as for the peoples of the Middle East, America did not just arrive on the scene but is part of a history of involvement by world powers in the affairs of their nations. Bush’s Neoconservative rhetoric of liberty and democracy was preceded by decades of policies of American administrations who in the shadow of the Cold War and in the name of Realpolitik installed and supported Latin American autocrats, squashed democracy and supported the policies of the iron fist.

As we seek to create a better world, a world of democracy and popular sovereignty and free trade, we must support national self-determination and recognize the struggles each nation will face along the way. There will be electoral outcomes that we may not like––Hugo Chavez is a case in point––but if we are to go down this road with integrity, we must hold true to our commitment to democracy itself, as shaped by local culture and values. If we fail to do this, our words will ring hollow and America’s credibility and strength in the world will be diminished.

One hundred years ago, the Islamic reformer and Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Abdu wrote of the disenchantment of the nations of the Middle East with their English overlords who were tutoring them in the ways of the modern world, yet whose enlightened words belied the harsh realities of their actions on the ground. His words resonate with the resistance Bush encountered last week.

We Egyptians believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat.

When Bush looked down from the lectern, he failed to consider the context of his words. He was in Latin America, meeting with leaders of nations that have worked for decades to find their own path toward economic security and democracy. Along the way, they will look to us for support even as they struggle against the legacy of our shared past. As he considered his remarks, it would have been worthwhile for him to recall his own words from when he was running for President while Governor of Texas.

“If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we've got to be humble… I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you.”

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