Saturday, October 20, 2007

Brownback on Being Good

On Friday morning at the Washington Briefing -- Values Voter Summit, a conference sponsored by the Family Research Council, Sen. Sam Brownback made a rather bold pronouncement:

”[W]e are great because we are good, and if we ever lose our fundamental goodness, we will surely lose our greatness

It’s of course easy to dismiss this line as a hokey, forgettable platitude from a man with erstwhile presidential pretensions. When I was a high-school teacher, a colleague of mine loved to tell of how in the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey’s staff was so confident of victory that they simply wanted to coast and forbid the candidate to say anything that might possibly be controversial. He thus made policy statements such as, “Before me, I see America” and, “In the coming years, we’ll be living in the future.” Brownback’s “We are great because we are good” might be thought of similarly meaningless sunshine.

But I find Brownback’s comment to be highly significant in that it succinctly, almost perfectly, encapsulated the kind of thinking that has led so many evangelical Christian—who in other areas have good, conservative instincts—to support the foreign policy of George W. Bush

The first thing we can ask is if it’s true that America is really “good” in the sense that Brownback means, that is, is it a nation that acts in accordance with universal love and absolute morality.

Well, the last time I checked, America expanded her borders by brutally expelling, isolating, sometimes murdering the native population and absorbing large swaths of land from defeated neighboring states; she turned the western hemisphere into her sphere of influence through overt imperialism and warning other Great Powers “hands off – or else!”; she defeated a monstrous tyrant in Berlin by aligning herself with an equally if not more monstrous tyrant in Moscow; since then, she’s ensured world order through a doctrine of mutual destruction with her chief rival and intervened in other countries at will.

I don’t necessarily approve of all of the deeds mentioned above, but then I would never say that America is uniquely wicked. In seeking to ensure security and status, America acted no differently than other Great Powers of the past.

To be sure, in establishing a republican government and guaranteeing its citizens rights, America does have claim to being a uniquely ethical enterprise. But any notion of inherent goodness only go so far. Without a doubt, America did not achieve “greatness” – that is power and influence well beyond her borders – by dint of any ethical achievement.

Brownback’s comments emerge from a rather sentimental imagination populated by images of smiling families in the Kansas suburbs, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” and Church youth choirs singing “kumbyyah.” All of these things are wonderful, and Brownback is right to adore them. But to believe that these are the sources of America’s world standing is to be beyond na├»ve.

Brownback actually made his “America is great because she is good” formulation just after speaking of the success faith-based organizations have had in bringing down the recidivism of convicted criminals – “Working and engaging the heart and the soul of the individual.” Implicit in Brownback’s comments is his notion that we can treat the rest of the world – particularly those states and groups that threaten us – just like we treat those down-and-out criminals with hearts of gold. Our foreign policy will be therapeutic – once our enemies recognize that we’re good and that we’re here to help, they’ll shape up, become our friend, and happily be integrated into our benign world order. An intervention in Iraq is in the same category sending out foodstuffs to sunami victims and working to save lives in Darfur. In Brownback’s world, American Christians should feel “good” about helping out Iraq.

Brownback is completely blind to the notion that America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, stationing of troops around the world, claims to right to intervene anywhere anytime might have anything to do with power. I’m reminded of a recent debate on democratiziation in The National Interest. Andrew Bacevich argues that America actually does want to help others countries – expand democracy and freedom and all that. But Washington wants other countries to democratic in the way that Canada is democratic – “genuinely free and reliable acquiescent.” Even in action that might seem munificent, power is never entirely absent. (“No disrespect to Canada” of course.)

An ethical, responsible foreign policy is a rare but feasible achievement. But a foreign policy that adheres to absolute morality or “makes the world a better place” is simply too much to be desired. It’s about time we start being honest about this fact and dropping any Brownbackian illusions of "greatness."

The Senator from Kansas offers not a rethinking of American strategy but merely a sentimental, corny way of talking about it. We lose nothing with his exodus from the presidential campaign.

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