Blogs > HNN > Five New Years' Resolutions for the United States: Lead By Example, Not By Words

Dec 12, 2005 3:42 am

Five New Years' Resolutions for the United States: Lead By Example, Not By Words

Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948. He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Click here to access his homepage.

1. Own up to our past--and our present.

President Bush initiated a potential sea change in our foreign policy when he admitted two years ago that"sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe." But despite the Bush Administration's increasingly prominent rhetoric supporting democracy and freedom in the region, the reality is that the United States still has not owned up to its crucial role (and before it, Europe's) in establishing--and today perpetuating--the authoritarian and corrupt systems the President says he wants to transform.

But it's not just the President; the American people need to take the next year to become much better informed about the history and present realities of American foreign policy in the Middle East, which are only hinted at by the problems surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. As it stands, Muslims know this history much better than we do; this is a major source of the disconnect between how we and they view America's role in the world.

2. Walk the Talk.

Last year while traveling in Iraq an elderly lawyer sat me down and, after quoting Jefferson and Franklin, asked me,"If these are your heroes, What in God's name are you doing to us in Iraq?" A similar question is asked of me often in my travels across the Middle East and Muslim world:"America has such great ideals; why don't you walk the talk?" In 2006 America needs to decide: Are we going to continue to have a set of policies in which lofty rhetoric is rarely matched by actual US support for real democratic change? Or is the US finally going to live up to its highest ideals?

The stakes couldn't be higher. Every year that we continue to occupy Iraq and support corrupt and autocratic regimes across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia the power of militant Islam will grow, as will the capability of terrorists to hit us with increasingly powerful weapons. To really shake up the situation in the Middle East, the US should begin a process of cutting off all military and non-humanitarian economic aid to any country in the region that is not making persuasive progress towards democratization and ending abuses of the people under its control. Doing so will radically change the position of the US in the eyes of the Muslim world and help change many people we presently view as our enemies into allies, and perhaps even friends.

3. Tell Iraq we have no plans to have long term bases in their country.

One of the most destabilizing dynamics of our presence in Iraq, and the most important fuel for the insurgency, is that Iraqis believe that we have no intention of leaving the country. They see the huge bases we've built, and hear American military leaders and politicians refusing to say that the US will leave, even a dozen years from now. If America wants to change the dynamic in Iraq towards a peaceful resolution of the insurgency, we need to utter the magic words:"The United States does not desire any long term bases in Iraq and will withdraw all troops at the earliest possible moment."

4. Withdraw the majority of US troops from the country before the end of 2006.

Nothing will better convince Iraqis that we really don't want their bases and oil than withdrawing the majority of US troops in the coming year. As Rep. John Murtha and so many others convincingly argue, the large US presence is a major reason for the chaos and insurgency, not a check against it. And besides, if the situation becomes appreciably worse, we could certainly send in reinforcements if asked to by a legitimately elected government. But ultimately this is Iraq's fight to win; if the Iraqi people can't come together to end this insurgency on their own in 2006, then we won't be able to do it for them, now or in 2016.

5. Embrace the world, and our children's future.

President Bush captured the raw emotions felt by most Americans in the wake of 9/11 when he exclaimed to the world that"You're either with us or against us." But while it might have made us feel better, such language, and the go it alone policies it reflected, have hurt America far more than Osama bin Laden ever could. Indeed, whether justifying indefinite detention and mistreatment of prisoners (many, and perhaps most of whom have had nothing to do with terrorism), supporting autocratic and corrupt regimes, selling tens of billions of dollars of weapons across the Muslim and larger developing world, committing a pitiful amount of money to fighting poverty and disease, or refusing to own up to the reality of global warming and our role in causing it, American policies have led people across the globe to view the US as a threat to world order, peace and prosperity, rather than its guarantor, as we imagine ourselves to be.

However unjustified Americans might feel these sentiments to be, they are rooted in the experiences of American power by hundreds of millions of people during the"American century." Karen Hughes or even Condi Rice cannot change them, even with the help of a squadron of marketers, propagandists and their military handlers. Rather, the negative attitudes towards the United States will only change if we acknowledge and substantively transformation our policies in the immediate future. We need real changes--not just towards the war on terror and Iraq, but towards the two greatest scourges of our age: widespread poverty and inequality (and the world wide health crises they nurture), and global warming and the environmental devastation it is undeniably causing.

The war against terror is not yet lost, but we're clearly losing. The world becomes more crowded, unhealthier, poorer and more chaotic every year. Even the power of a"fortress America" with"full spectrum dominance" in world affairs cannot prevent terror, poverty, climate change and disease from wreaking havoc on our country in the near future. If the President wants to ensure a lasting and positive legacy, he needs to show new vision in 2006. The world will stand for nothing less, and neither should Americans.

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More Comments:

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"4.) Push for an unconditional military victory over foreign terrorists and jihadists led by aggressive and politically savvy Special Forces, Marines & Army in conjunction and equal partnership with Iraqi military and police forces."
So it is turning the Iraqis, led by "politically savvy (American) Special Forces, Marines & Army" against "foreign terrorists and jihadists " that will achieve victory!
How differnr is that from what is going on now in "this brutally burdensome, criminally compliant and costly occupation "?

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Mr. LeVine,

Your article, though well thought-out and written, is pie in the sky wishfulness that will never come to fruition without a serious overture to peace by the aggressor of this war. Which unfortunately, is us Americans.

For your wish list to become manifest we need to;

1.) Initiate a plan to win the war in Iraq beginning with a comprehensive cease-fire.

2.) In return for all-Iraqi participation in the new government a granting of full amnesty for insurgents who lay down their arms to join the democratic process.

3.) Implement fully multilateral diplomatic and economic support for equal opportunity in post-cease-fire Iraq for Kurd, Shiite and Sunni alike.

This is to include full recognition of women's rights and freedoms of press, religion and assembly/association.

4.) Push for an unconditional military victory over foreign terrorists and jihadists led by aggressive and politically savvy Special Forces, Marines & Army in conjunction and equal partnership with Iraqi military and police forces.

At this moment what is needed is a policy that clearly unites America with the Iraqi people who deeply hold aspirations for peace, justice, hope, dignity and the economic and human dreams that motivate people everywhere.

To continue this brutally burdensome, criminally compliant and costly occupation will do nothing towards the development of a practical strategic and political policy to ensure victory in Iraq.

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Dear Mr. Baker,

Thomas Jefferson I'm not. Our military needs to be highly aggressive against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and like fighters while showing constraint in dealing with Iraqi nationals. It is a near impossible balance but, you can clearly see our current tactics have not fully succeeded.

Reports are that less than 10% of fighters are foreign jihadists. If we can placate the Sunni and coral the Shiite we may be able to eject the non-Iraqi fighters. This may eliminate some chaos, repair some lost trust between the US/Iraq against a common enemy and allow for resources to be redeployed to humanitarian aid/ reconstruction.

If you have a better idea we're all ears.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 12/24/2005

Mr. Levine,
Well said.

Best regards,

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 12/23/2005

thanks for your comments. this is a very tough issue. having been in iraq and experienced the violence of the insurgents first hand--i have no idea if it was a foreigner or an iraqi who blew up the hotel next door to mine and took part of my hotel with it, but i can't say that it matters to the people who's bodies were scattered along the street--i am sympathetic to the need to go after the perpetrators of extreme violence, even as i'm absolutely sympathetic with the demand of most iraqis for the US to leave iraq asap.

the one thing i know though is that as long as it's the US doing the "policing" it won't work. yet the new iraqi government has shown itself willing to be as brutal as the american forces, and as indiscriminate too. so i'm not sure what the solution is. i wrote a peace called, something like, 'iraq and the golem of violence,' which is probably somewhere in my blogs, where i talk about how the sunni leaders allowed, in my view, the violence to flourish bc they thought they could control it and use it strategically. but this has blown back on them as surely as the same policy has blown back on the US. they let in the foreign jihadis but the jihadis have wound up using them for a war against shiites as much as americans. this i know from talking to some of the main sunni leaders was not what they intended, but it's what they got.

as spielberg shows in his new film, munich, violence begets violence, no matter how justified someone feels in resorting to it. sadly, few people learn this lesson until it's too late and i fear iraq is going to suffer for a long time because of this.