The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Traditionby George McGovern
Referring us to our moral and spiritual foundations, McGovern not only presents a resounding defense of liberalism
Liberalism is the oldest and most enduring American tradition, a philosophy and way of life we inherited from the Founding Fathers. This is the central idea of The Essential America by George McGovern, America's best-known (and most consistent) liberal.
Referring us to our moral and spiritual foundations, McGovern not only presents a resounding defense of liberalism as "the most practical and hopeful compass to guide the American ship of state" but offers specific proposals for keeping the tradition vibrant.
The Essential America proposes programs for feeding the world's malnourished children. Rather than sending our armies abroad, McGovern spells out policies that confront the causes of terrorism. He proposes cutting our military budget (echoing Dwight D. Eisenhower's powerful warning about the military-industrial complex). He condemns preemptive war, criticizes tax cuts for the rich, and warns against government for the powerful minority.
Americans have traditionally stood for progress, generosity, tolerance, and protection of the needy, McGovern states -- as well as for multi- lateralism in foreign policy and "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." He reminds us that while creative tension between liberalism and conservatism is the genius of American politics, it is the liberals who have been responsible for every forward step in our national history. They built "the Essential America."
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Chapter 1: Faith of Our Fathers
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1927
Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1927
My father, J. C. McGovern, was a Methodist clergyman a follower of the eighteenth-century English founder of Methodism, John Wesley. A fierce opponent of slavery and an ardent defender of the poor and unfortunate members of society, Wesley had a stronger following in the slums and sweatshops of London than in the castles and country estates of the realm. A proponent of personal salvation, he was equally committed to what a century later was called "the social gospel." He believed that the Judeo-Christian ethic called upon believers to demonstrate compassion for the homeless, the sick, the vulnerable, and for the miners and factory workers. As one biographer noted, "Wesley was passionate about the need to alter economic policies that encourage greed and punish the poor. He was an advocate of lowering taxes and reducing the national debt by minimizing military spending." (Ronald Stone, John Wesley's Life and Ethics, Abingdon Press, 2001)
Following his death, in 1791, England's widely read Gentleman's Magazine, whose editorial views were not always compatible with Wesley's thinking, observed: "His personal influence was greater perhaps than any private gentleman in this country." His biographer concluded that "Wesley made the most rational and persuasive arguments against slavery of any person in the 18th Century."
Wesley's social conscience and his message of individual salvation were brought by Francis Asbury to early America, where he found eager recipients.
George Whitefield, the English fellow Methodist of Wesley and Asbury and a powerful pulpit orator, came to America in 1739 in the first of a series of visits to the colonies. Utilizing the revival meeting technique first employed by Jonathan Edwards, he preached to large open-air crowds, drawing multitudes of listeners from virtually every religious denomination. His appeals to personal salvation given in highly emotional language shook up the established churches and in the early 1740s set off "the Great Awakening" of spiritual concern throughout the colonies. The messages and articles by Whitefield gained broad circulation after being printed by a young Philadelphia printer, Ben Franklin. Despite his then meager income, Franklin reportedly said that he found it difficult to avoid giving all that he had to Whitefield.
No one who overlooks the moral and spiritual views of our founders can fully grasp the enduring strength of American freedom. Who were the founding fathers? Perhaps no two historians would suggest the same list of the personalities who led the thirteen colonies to independence from Britain and then shaped the new American nation. Here is a suggested list:
Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense and a passionate advocate for the revolution against British rule, who aimed his message at the ordinary American; George Washington, the commander in chief of the revolutionary armies and the first president of the United States; Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who crafted his prose to appeal to the most educated and influential Americans and to the ruling class in Europe, whose help was needed in the American Revolution; Benjamin Franklin, who presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution; John Adams, the sturdy voice of conservatism and the nation's second president; James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay the three brilliant authors of The Federalist Papers, designed to persuade the American people to adopt the Constitution; Samuel Adams, a powerful advocate of American independence; Patrick Henry, Virginia's eloquent orator and supporter of independence; Roger Sherman, a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Association, the Articles of Confederation, and the federal Constitution the only person to sign all four of the major state papers; Gouverneur Morris, signer of the Articles of Confederation, member of the Continental Congress, financier and U.S. senator from New York; James Wilson, member of the Continental Congress, delegate from Pennsylvania to the Constitutional Convention, justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and first professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania; and John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, first signer of the Declaration of Independence, and first governor of Massachusetts.
From its beginning, American democracy has been grounded both in the Judeo-Christian ethic and in the European Enlightenment with a generous seasoning of down-home common sense. What was the Enlightenment that so heavily influenced our founders?
The Enlightenment was the revolutionary trend of thought that appeared in Europe and the American colonies during the eighteenth century. Writers and thinkers of the period believed that humanity was emerging from long centuries of ignorance, superstition, darkness, and misrule into a new age of reason, science, and respect for the individual. Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke were seen as the forerunners of the age, followed by Newton, Kant, Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and, in the United States, Jefferson and Franklin.
The Enlightenment thinkers placed emphasis on the power of human reason, disciplined by experience and observation. They came to believe that through education, humanity could be changed for the better. Most of the Enlightenment figures did not renounce religion, but they were sometimes critical of the doctrinaire, authoritarian nature of the established church. They generally opted for Deism a faith in God but not in every aspect of Christian theology. Jefferson edited his own Bible, which consisted only of the words of Christ. He and other Deists tended to encourage a better way of life on earth rather than hopes for the hereafter. Without exception they respected the moral law if not always the proclamations of the organized church and the theologians.
The voices of the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of Christ, and the thinking of eighteenth-century European philosophers are all clearly present in the messages of Thomas Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence; James Madison the chief author of the Constitution; George Washington the "father of his country"; John Adams the early conscience of conservatism; and, of course, Abraham Lincoln who saved the Federal Union and emancipated the slaves. Others, including Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, were more skeptical of spiritual faith. Even Jefferson rejected some parts of Christian theology and a literal reading of passages of the Old Testament. But all of these men accepted the centrality of the moral law as a necessary guide to government and human affairs.
Later presidents, including the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter, drew inspiration and guidance from biblical verse. In President Kennedy's intended speech in Dallas on that fateful day November 22, 1963 he quoted the biblical lines "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain" (Psalms 127:1). He concluded another address with these words: "Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."
Our founders believed in what they repeatedly referred to as "the moral law" or "the natural law" terms that they used interchangeably as did such European thinkers as John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Descartes, Kant, and John Stuart Mill. Jefferson combined the natural, moral, and spiritual referring to them as "the laws of nature and of nature's God."
Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin were especially influenced by Locke's belief that natural law "hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty to love others than themselves...." Here, of course, is the "golden rule" of the Bible. In another passage, Locke refers to the rule of "a common reason and equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security...."
One of the most cherished legacies of our founders is the separation of church and state. It was Jefferson who used the phrase "a wall of separation." Under attack today by the religious Right and a significant number of the Supreme Court justices, it remains a safeguard against manipulation of the state by the church or the church by the state.
In the eloquent opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson contends that "the laws of nature and of nature's God" entitled the American colonies to independence and freedom from British rule. But in later years his concern over some of the failings of the American Republic, especially the practice of slavery, led him to confess: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." Jefferson's troubled mind did not, however, prompt him to release his own slaves. Only Washington among the founders took that step.
The Americans Jefferson most trusted and admired were the farmers who tilled the soil. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue," he wrote.
Circling the dome of the magnificent Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin of the nation's capital are these words by the Sage of Monticello: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
Always worth repeating are his ageless words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Reading these stirring lines, Lincoln said: "I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." The Declaration, he said, "gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world for all future time."
George Washington was not as expressive a man as Jefferson or Lincoln, but none doubted his moral integrity or his reverence for the things of the spirit. Consider these words as he addressed his army before it went into the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776: "The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army."
Lincoln, regarded by many historians as our greatest president, was the one who drew most heavily and consistently from the Bible and spiritual faith perhaps because the endless agony and destruction of the bloody Civil War drove him to his knees. It should be noted that in his limited education, Lincoln never read a novel, nor did he read the classics with which Jefferson and others were familiar. But he was immersed in the King James Version of the Bible, as well as the legal commentaries of Blackstone and, to some extent, the works of Shakespeare.
Speaking to an audience in his home state, Illinois, in 1858, Lincoln inquired: "What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling seacoasts, our army and our navy....Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere."
Quoting the Gospel According to Mark (without attribution), Lincoln declared: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
In his farewell address to the citizens of Illinois before assuming his duties in Washington as the nation's newly elected president, Lincoln said on the eve of the Civil War: "I now leave with a task before me greater than the one which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail."
Lincoln's tendency to probe the depths of the spiritual as a means of lifting the hearts of his fellow citizens North and South is seen in his First Inaugural Address, as Civil War clouds were gathering force:
"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
As the war gained greater ferocity and destruction, with Negro slavery emerging as the central issue of the conflict, Lincoln told a visiting delegation to the White House: "It is difficult to make a man miserable while he feels he is worthy of himself and claims kindred to the great God who made him."
A year later, November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered his brief but powerful address at Gettysburg, in which he concluded that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
In his final inaugural address, as the Civil War was drawing to a blood-soaked finish, Lincoln reminded his listeners that each side prayed to the same God for victory, but that obviously both sides could not prevail. "The Almighty has His own purposes," he said.
"Fondly do we hope fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away....
"With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
Were the early architects who crafted a nation from thirteen British colonies along the eastern American seaboard men devoted to organized denominational religion? In almost every instance, the answer is no. Were they saintly men, free from the lusts of the flesh and the sins that plague the rest of us? Certainly not. Were their personal lives and private practices always attuned to the soaring moral and political principles they publicly proclaimed? Not always.
The noble Jefferson, whose inspired rhetoric has lifted the vision of his fellow Americans for two centuries, was a slaveholder throughout his life. It is widely believed that one of his female slaves was his mistress and the mother of one or more of his children. Benjamin Franklin was the author of a much-quoted letter: "Advice to a young man on the advantages of an aging mistress." Conceding that the complexions of older women are sometimes wrinkled, he noted that their thighs remain smooth and inviting to the end. With an older mistress one need not fear an unwanted pregnancy. The final asset of such an older companion, according to Franklin, is that "they are so grateful."
To read the definitive biographies of our founders is to discover that few, if any, of them, despite their inspired thoughts and elements of greatness, escaped the snares of the devil who tempts all of us. My father was fond of the words of the Apostle Paul: "All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God." That's certainly true of me, and I believe it applies to the founders of our nation and all of their successors.
But with these reservations in mind, there is a strong recognition in the prose, poetry, and pronouncements of our founders from Jefferson to Lincoln of the moral and ethical law that derives from the King James Version of the Bible and the philosophers of the European Enlightenment. Islam and the other religions of the Orient had not yet made an impact on the Western mind. But it is clear that our founders not only knew the wisdom and spiritual insight of the Bible but drew heavily on the European thinkers especially Locke and Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire and later, John Stuart Mill.
No one who aspires to lead this nation into an uncertain future in war or peace should undertake that daunting task without drawing on the time-tested moral and political principles of our founders liberty, equality, justice, truthfulness, and compassion for all of God's creatures everywhere.
The battle cry of my 1972 presidential campaign was "Come Home, America" a call for the American people and our government to come home to the founding principles of the nation. This was a phrase borrowed from the fallen Martin Luther King Jr., after my wife, Eleanor, discovered it in one of his eloquent sermons.
Of course, political leaders have always appealed to legitimate traditions and insights apart from the faith and wisdom of our founding fathers.
Bill Clinton, who performed brilliantly in 1972 as my campaign coordinator for the state of Texas, was himself the Democratic presidential nominee in 1992. With remarkable skill, he then defeated the senior President Bush with a campaign slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." Apparently, it was the economy that concerned most voters. But I think it is important to understand, as I am sure Bill Clinton does, that the economy is a means to an end not an end in itself.
An economy is no better or worse as an instrument of national policy than the wisdom and integrity of those who direct it.
Consider, for example, the German economy of the 1930s. Adolf Hitler achieved a productive, prosperous, full-employment economy that was the envy of an otherwise depression-ridden world. But he used that economy for barbaric ends. He directed his associates to build the world's most devastating military machine and then smashed his way across Europe until he was finally stopped on the vast steppes of Russia by the huge Red Army. Twenty-two million Russian soldiers and civilians many of them children and teenage army lads died in that awful struggle, but so did 6 million German soldiers before the Russians prevailed on the eastern front as our superb soldiers, sailors, and fliers did on the western front and then against Japan.
What was the missing ingredient in Hitler's scheme? Certainly not the economy. It was the total lack of any moral sense as to how the political leadership and the economy could be put to the service of the people. One cannot measure the terrifying brutality and immorality of Hitler, his powerful economy and his mighty war machine, without considering his slaughter of 6 million innocent Jews a major part of them his own citizens and most of the others citizens of Poland and Russia. It is shocking to realize that Hitler was able to debauch morally and intellectually a nation that had given the world Goethe, Beethoven, Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer, and Albert Einstein. In this case, it was not the economy that was the problem. It was the deterioration of simple old-fashioned decency and the rudiments of morality.
Thirty years later, Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson guided America to a prosperous, growing economy, with President Kennedy calling the nation to a "New Frontier" and President Johnson dreaming of a "Great Society." But these vigorous, strong presidents became enmeshed in the Vietnam quagmire. As a consequence of that awful miscalculation, much of the idealism and hope for a better future died, along with our bravest young men, in the jungles of Southeast Asia that had swallowed other would-be conquerors for a thousand years. Sadly, we set aside the wisdom of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt and embarked on a misconceived venture ten thousand miles from our shores and equally distant from our national ideals.
I'm a supposedly combat-hardened bomber pilot of World War II with thirty-five missions against Hitler's most heavily defended targets, but each time I walk along the Vietnam Memorial's black marble wall carrying the names of 58,000 young Americans who died in Vietnam, the tears course down my cheeks. I think also and then shudder in the knowledge that 2 million Vietnamese, 2 million Cambodians, and 1 million Laotians 5 million of God's Asian children died in the Indochina conflagration largely as a result of the massive, misdirected military power of my great country. I quote Jefferson again: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
There are two consoling factors in this tragedy: (1) ours is a forgiving God; and (2) it is quite possible that the terrible lessons learned in the jungles of Southeast Asia saved us from vastly greater losses had we gone to war against Russia and China the real centers of Communist power. No Russian or Chinese soldier fought us during our long involvement in Vietnam, but the world's two biggest armies were out there watching and waiting to see if our troops and bombers were going to trespass across their borders.
Writing in 1942, as the United States was entering World War II, Herbert Agar, one of our brilliant social critics, observed: "The savages who assail us may teach us to reexamine our faith, to review the greatness of our tradition, to remember that we have not done it justice." And again: "Such plagues as Hitler are not irrelevant to history, like falling stars. They happen only in bad times, in a world whose institutions are failing to meet the demands of life."
As Agar concluded eerily in World War II: "We have learned in grief what happens to a world that strays too far from its moral purpose." (A Time for Greatness, 1942, pp. 4-6)
As I reread these lines written six decades ago, I think of our present assailants, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network of terrorists. Of course, the American people and our leaders were understandably traumatized by the murderous attacks of September 11, 2001. They have dominated our politics and our foreign policy ever since much as the fear of communism did between 1945 and 1990.
President George W. Bush quickly announced: "I want Osama bin Laden dead or alive." But after our heavy bombers had turned Afghanistan into a rockpile, we failed to get Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen either dead or alive. Nor, despite our superior weapons and the smashing of ancient Baghdad, has our superb army been able to find any weapons of mass destruction the supposed reason for the invasion of Iraq. Now the men and women of our occupying army are being picked off daily by Iraqi guerrillas with no end in sight shades of Vietnam.
Is it possible that preponderant military power and earth-shaking aerial bombardment are not the best antidotes to the terrorist zealot? It is past time to ask ourselves some hard questions. How is it possible for a wealthy Saudi Arabian Islamic fanatic, Osama bin Laden, to move through the slums of Cairo, the hills of Afghanistan, and the backcountry of Saudi Arabia and recruit other disgruntled Muslim zealots willing to die striking at the world's richest and most militarily powerful nation? Our president says these young men are cowards who hate American freedom. I respectfully disagree with that interpretation. I think I can assure you as a former pilot that flying a plane into the side of a huge building knowing that the pilot will be the first to die is not the work of a coward. Misguided? Certainly. Cowardly? Hardly.
Nor do I believe the young men of Al Qaeda hate our freedom. I think what they more likely hate is the miserable and frustrating condition that afflicts their neighbors in the rural villages and city slums of much of the world. Insufficient food, bad housing, no sanitary water, little or no medical and dental care, few or no satisfying jobs and now the terrible epidemic of AIDS. Moreover, half the people of the planet are living in poverty. These heart-rending facts were known and observed year after year, day in and day out, by the somewhat more comfortable and better-educated young men who flew the hijacked airliners of 9/11. These young men were not blind to the miserable living (or dying) conditions of their poorer compatriots. They also knew that the Western countries, including the United States, where some of them were educated, are living on a scale sometimes of great extravagance beyond their dreams. In some instances, their own regimes are ruled by high-living royalists closely tied to Washington and London in trade, investment, oil, and military aid that keep those unpopular regimes in power.
And mingled with despair and misery is the incendiary impact of religious fanaticism. The Middle Ages and even early modern Europe were racked by bloody religious wars. Human beings are capable of terrible acts when driven by spiritual zealotry, as we are witnessing again in our time.
I am convinced that it is the misery of their own people, contrasted so painfully with our lifestyles, that thousands of young people around the world deeply resent. I have found the same kind of dual resentment in Latin America resentment of their conditions of life and resentment of the colossus of the North. Indeed, I have yet to visit a country anywhere in the world whose rank-and-file citizenry supports the American invasion of Iraq, our embargo of Cuba, and our tight embrace of Israel. These aspects of American policy are seen by others as arrogance and insensitivity toward the world community. This, of course, is no reason to hijack our airliners and destroy the lives of innocent Americans.
But neither can we dismiss the frustration and fury of these angry young men by branding them as cowards who hate our freedom. That is simplistic reasoning that will achieve little in reducing the growing resentment against America not only in the Arab world but even in Europe and our neighbors in Latin America, to say nothing of such large states as Russia, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, India, and the whole suffering African continent.
I suspect that the public opinion surveys that show world approval of our government declining to new lows do not indicate that this stems from our freedom; rather, it derives from the arrogance and go-it-alone character of too much of our foreign policy and national political behavior. The crass, heavy-handed reputation of the current administration has been fed by such actions as the spurning of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming a danger to our future that is matched only by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Likewise, our government's unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and instead pressing ahead with the so-called Star Wars missile defense system in space does not build the stature of America abroad. It is, in fact, a mistaken move, both diplomatically and in terms of security. The same can be said of our government's rejection of the International War Crimes Court. Both our national prosperity and our international standing sink lower each time our president talks of an American military invasion. It is painful for us to contemplate, but in many countries, America is viewed as a "bully" and a threat to peace among nations especially the current administration's neocons' doctrine of "preemptive war."
Ponder Herbert Agar's words of 1942 again: "The savages who assail us may teach us to re-examine our faith, to review the greatness of our tradition, to remember that we have not done it justice."
Joseph Nye, the dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who is also a former Defense Department official, has concluded: "Anti-Americanism has increased in recent years, and the United States' soft power its ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them is in decline as a result." (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004, p. 161)
We can fill our airports with police officers, security experts, and searchers of our luggage even taking off our shoes to be examined. We can create the biggest and most expensive security bureaucracy in the world and call it "Homeland Security." We can legislate the misnamed Patriot Act, which weakens the Bill of Rights. But we live in a world where millions of people are frustrated, angry, and desperate over the conditions of their lives. Do not these intolerable conditions feed the flames of terrorism? Suicide bombers, grenades, or dynamite sticks thrown into American theaters, restaurants, shopping centers, or buses can easily become a reality, no matter how powerful our military forces. Israel has one of the most effective armed forces in the world and one of the tightest national security systems, plus an experienced general as prime minister. Yet each time Israeli troops, tanks, and planes have fired on Palestinians, a Palestinian youth burning with revenge becomes a suicide bomber, and another group of Israelis is blown to pieces.
Can we find a better way of dealing with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan, and North Korea, or even tiny Cuba, and other countries and leaders with whom we have disagreements? I have never been a pacifist. There is a time and place when the use of military power may be the only effective option, as it was in facing down Hitler and his Axis allies. But there are crucial problems in the world that cannot be reached by military solutions. Such a problem, I believe, is terrorism.
The decade-long international embargo against Iraq contributed to the deaths of untold numbers of Iraqi children. Many women and elderly poor have also suffered from the embargo, combined with the poor leadership and brutality of Saddam Hussein.
But does anyone really believe that sending our army into Iraq is going to reduce the terrorist danger to the United States? The nineteen young men who wrecked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came not from Iraq but from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Their leader was not an Iraqi but a Saudi, residing in Afghanistan. What has engaged the Iraqis in terrorism has been the presence of our army in their country. And the victims of this new terrorism are our young soldiers, who have been killed at an average rate of fifty each month since President Bush announced in May 2003 "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq.
It is immoral to invade a comparatively defenseless country and kill its people because they have the misfortune to be ruled by a ruthless dictator who our war strategists speculate might someday be a threat to us.
The Iraqi people know that our strategists backed Saddam Hussein as long as he was killing Iranians in the 1980s, just as we backed Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980s as long as they were killing Russians.
If we really want to use our power and influence effectively in the Middle East, we would be well advised to concentrate our creativity and our political and moral strength on ending the suicidal conflict that has raged for generations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Neither Palestinians nor Israelis can resolve their differences militarily. Israeli tanks and jets and Palestinian suicide bombers will not decide this deadly contest. They can only run up the cost in lives lost on both sides. A moral sense of decency and reality on the part of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and on the part of the United States as the logical moderator, might bring peace at last. If we are to play that role, we have to do so in a just and even-handed way. The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin understood these realities and shook hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House to cement that understanding in the presence of President Clinton after vigorous and successful effort by Mr. Clinton.
One of the most costly assassinations in history was the murder of Rabin by a deranged Israeli religious fanatic who opposed a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. The peace process has been in trouble ever since, which the killer intended in murdering one of its essential architects.
I believe that our president is too obsessed with the "axis of evil," as he calls it Iraq, Iran, North Korea and with Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, and Sudan, all designated by the Bush team as having regimes that may have to be removed by American forces because of alleged sanctuaries for terrorists. (Elizabeth Drew, The New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003) If, instead of a preoccupation with these small and nonstrategic countries, the president would give top priority to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict in an even-handed approach, he would not only serve the cause of peace and justice but might even reduce the terrorism of the Middle East. It has never been a case of one side being "right" and the other "wrong." In a sense, there are two "rights" Israel's right to live as a free and independent nation within secure borders, and the Palestinian right to an independent, secure state situated on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip, the territory taken from the Palestinians in the 1967 Six-Day War.
From the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, we have armed and equipped the Israeli military until it became the most powerful armed force in the Middle East. Israel long ago built a nuclear arsenal that strikes fear into its Arab neighbors. I have always regarded myself as a friend of Israel and an admirer of its cultural, political, economic, and spiritual traditions. My Methodist minister dad honestly believed the Israelis were "God's chosen people." But the only way we can now help Israel survive in peace and security is to press the peace process as a truly honest broker. This is not only the honorable, moral role for us to follow; it is the only one that may lead to peace at last in the troubled Middle East. For the benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians, this is the goal I hope and pray we Americans can help to advance. Anything less than this even-handed posture will be rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab world, and the violence will continue.
Americans and our leaders must come to understand that terrorism is driven not only by poverty and injustice, but also by the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict over the unresolved Palestinian problem. Most influential Arabs and the leaders of nearly all of the nations of the world believe that the dynamite on our doorstep is planted by the daily violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The Israelis in the period since 1967 have built large numbers of settlements on the occupied territory, which, of course, is the nub of the problem.
Every informed Arab knows that U.S. administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, have from the creation of Israel in 1948 usually sided with Israel in any dispute with the Arabs. Repeatedly in votes at the United Nations, Israel and the United States have stood alone against the wishes of the world. The United States has frequently used its veto power to block UN resolutions opposed by Israel most recently the UN resolution condemning Israel's assassination of the Palestinian leader of Hamas.
I have long supported Israel. But after years of study and observation of Middle Eastern affairs, I have concluded that such hard-line Israeli leaders as Ariel Sharon the current prime minister and earlier, Benjamin Netanyahu, are a menace to Middle East peace. Neither of these men has enjoyed approval in the international community. They are despised by Arabs everywhere. And as their backer and arms supplier, the United States becomes the target of Arab ire. We ignore that anger and resentment at our peril.
There will be no progress against Al Qaeda and terrorist Islamic cells such as the one suspected of the Madrid train bombings until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. That is the long-festering antagonism that feeds the terrorist impulse in the Arab world.
Beyond the tensions of the Middle East lies a world in which half the inhabitants long to be emancipated from the bonds of hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Some of these miserable ones are Americans. The United States cannot alone relieve all these burdens that crush our fellow humans. But we can show the world an American face of compassion.
Everyone understands that we are the richest and most powerful military nation in human history and that we would, if necessary, use that power to defend our country. But our greatness began with a small band of remarkable men who followed "a faith that could move mountains," even the mighty British Empire. To advance that faith, they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
To us, as comparatively affluent Americans, the number one problem seems to be terrorism. One has the impression that the White House, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the FBI, and the State Department are working around the clock on nothing save the terrorist threat. Even the misguided invasion of Iraq has been sold to much of the American public as a "war on terrorism." The truth is that Iraq has not waged any attacks on the United States and was no threat to Americans until the president ordered our army into Iraq. This occupation has infuriated much of the Arab world, and brave young Americans are dying as a consequence.
To most of the people in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the central problem is not terrorism; it is poverty combined with injustice. This is the combination that produces the desperation which drives the terrorist impulse. When we add to this anger and desperation our government's longtime embrace of Israel, the terrorist danger grows for both Israel and the United States.
What steps could the United States take that might be a more successful response to the terrorist challenge?
(1) First, we should remove our army from Iraq, where our soldiers are now being killed and wounded in an inconclusive guerrilla-type war that Western armies are not able to manage very well. Most of the Arab world, including those who detested Saddam Hussein, is against a foreign army occupying the heart of that Arab world. Indeed, if we can believe the public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority of the world's people everywhere are against our invasion of Iraq. This is true even in the few countries whose heads of state endorsed the war. It may soon become true of the American majority if our casualties and financial costs continue to escalate. As soon as we can turn Iraqi governance back to representative Iraqi groups, let's get our army out of the Middle East.
(2) Second, let us replace our unilateral, isolationist foreign policy with one that cooperates with the United Nations, our traditional allies, and the other countries of the world. As the late senator George Aiken once said of our predicament in Vietnam, "Let's declare victory and come home."
We should join the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and support the International War Crimes Court and the ban on land mines. Instead of putting weapons into space, we should halt this costly program and concentrate our efforts on checking the proliferation of nuclear weapons here on earth.
(3) Third, we should toughen our stand on the necessity of ending the bloody tit-for-tat killing going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This bitter contest over Israeli settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River must stop before it destroys both Israel and Palestine. Palestinians will apparently never yield their claim to this land, which they believe should be the space for an independent Palestine. The Israelis seem equally determined to defend their settlers living in the disputed area.
As I write, the Israeli leader Ariel Sharon has proposed a unilateral initiative endorsed by President Bush under which Israel would give up the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians a desolate piece of ground that no one seems to want. Sharon also proposes to exchange some of the West Bank settlements for other areas of settlement.
It was a mistake for President Bush to endorse this Sharon proposal without consultation with the Palestinians. As one would have expected, the proposal was dead on arrival among Arabs and has since been rejected by Sharon's own party.
The only way for the United States to proceed as a Middle East peace moderator is to bring the two leaderships together, as President Jimmy Carter did at Camp David and as President Bill Clinton did later, and keep them talking until a compromise settlement is reached. I have long been convinced, as have most of the world's leaders including some prominent Israelis that the only workable solution is for Israel to withdraw from all of the land taken in 1967 and permit the Palestinians to create there an independent Palestine. If there is a foreign minister or head of state anywhere in the world who disagrees with that solution, I have yet to encounter that person in long years of extensive travel.
The United States has poured billions of dollars into the development and defense of Israel. We continue to do so. We will stand on solid ground historically, politically, and morally if we now insist that continued aid is contingent upon a just and lasting peace.
It would be a bargain for the United States to join with the United Nations in providing an international police force along the Israeli-Palestinian border to stabilize such a peace agreement. This arrangement could last for ten or fifteen years, or until such time as it takes for the Israelis and the Palestinians to discover that they are all human beings indeed, they are all Semites, they all live in the Holy Land, and they are all children of the same God.
It might be wise for President Bush (or President Kerry) to name former presidents Bush Sr. and Carter to preside over the peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. These two experienced men know the complexities of Middle East issues. They also know the pressures in American politics that frequently dominate our foreign policy. Both have a record of diplomatic success: President Bush in handling the run-up to the Gulf War in 1990 and President Carter in the Camp David accords with Israel and Egypt.
A solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict will do vastly more to end the terrorist threat than sending our army into Iraq.
(4) A fourth step to reduce terrorism would be a substantial increase in the food, medical, educational, water, and housing aid from the wealthy countries to the poor ones. UN agencies such as the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization both located in Rome are well situated to manage this kind of aid, but they need additional funds. Careful programming of assistance can do much to ease the misery and desperation that breed terrorism.
I'm not much of an expert on anything except the St. Louis Cardinals. But I have thought long and hard about three major problems: how to bring America's policies closer to our founding ideals; how to end the hunger of the world's poor; and how to bring peace to the long-troubled Middle East. There are people who know better than I how to get the Cardinals into the World Series. There are others who know better than I how to make America more faithful to its founding ideals, or how to end human hunger, or how to resolve the turmoil of the Middle East.
What you have here are the thoughts of one aging ex-senator who yearns for American greatness and peace in the world and a pennant for the Cardinals. The last of these may be impossible this year, so I'll settle for a great America and a world at peace.
For most of my public years, including the 1972 presidential campaign, what I have most longed for is to see America once again become the great and good land it can be when we are faithful to the ideals of our founders. That is a pursuit that might energize conservatives as well as my fellow liberals. We should be able to make room in heaven for those conservatives who at long last see the light!
Copyright © 2004 by George McGovern
Meet the Author
George McGovern, the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 1972, served in the House of Representatives from 1957 to 1961 and in the Senate for eighteen years. He was the president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, D.C., for six years and then served as ambassador to the UN Agencies on Food and Agriculture in Rome under President Clinton. He holds the Distinguished Flying Cross for service as a bomber pilot in World War II and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for humanitarian service.
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