Today's date:
Fall 2006

A More Humble US, A Better Europe for Muslims

Sen. John McCain is the likely Republican nominee for the next US presidential race. His comments are adapted from an interview for NPQ’s weekly Global Viewpoint column conducted in Washington in September by Janet Hook and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.

Washington — Undoubtedly the American people are safer today than on September 11, 2001. Are they safe? No. But I think it’s important to recognize that the day after Sept. 11, most experts believed there would be another attack on the United States of America by this time. Now you can call it luck, you can call it coincidence, you can call it better and more effective measures against terrorism. I think it’s probably a combination of the three. I believe that the president and the agencies of government deserve credit for the fact that we haven’t. We may have one tomorrow. But the reality is that in contradiction to every expert’s prediction, we have not had another attack.

The flip side is that the threat is not now so much in the United States as from these home-grown terrorists in Europe. That complicates our challenges rather dramatically. Conventional wisdom held by me and others was that all these terrorists were impoverished kids taken off the street in Islamabad into the madrassas and brainwashed to become suicide bombers. Now we see these relatively sophisticated young men, well brought up. They’re brainwashed, but they brainwash each other in their chatrooms and in their encounters with each other. That is really a complicating factor in my view in the fight against radical Islam extremism. They are now breeding radical Islam extremists who are willing to be suicide bombers in their own countries.

HARD vs. SOFT POWER | Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been very damaging to America’s image and have been exploited to foment more anti-American sentiment, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Western Europe as well. That means we’d better pay more attention to the political and social climate in other countries. We’d better pay attention to the environment in which the honorable people of the Muslim faith are existing in European countries. It really had nothing to do with terrorism, but the Muslim youth who live in the ghettos of Paris were willing to burn thousands of cars. You clearly have a volatile situation that could easily translate into further Islamic extremism.

A certain amount of anti-Americanism exists just because we’re the world superpower. In the case of Western Europe, the glue that held our alliance together was the Soviet Union, and that no longer exists. Nations have become more independent. But in addition to that, deservedly or undeservedly, the American image of hubris and condescension is damaging to our efforts. We should be more humble, we should be more considerate, and recognize that the world superpower can afford to be humble in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition.

By contrast, sometimes the president’s passion is interpreted as hubris. But I have noticed, particularly in the last couple of years, a renewed effort on the president’s part to develop and strengthen relationships with the Europeans. I think he fully recognizes that we have a problem and I think he’s working at trying to help improve America’s image.

On his democratization agenda, I agree with the president that there are certain regimes in the Middle East that over time cannot stand because of the lack of participation in the political process by the citizenry. But I think a lot of us, not just the president, place too much emphasis on elections. Elections are the easy part of democracy and maybe many of us, and I would plead guilty, have underestimated the difficulty in bringing true democracy to nations that have never known it. One of the key elements and the most difficult elements is the rule of law. It’s easy to have an election, but to install the institutions of democracy on barren ground is a long, hard, arduous process. But it does not mean that it isn’t worth the effort. We have to be more realistic about the difficulties, but for us to abandon our advocacy of democracy and freedom in every part of the world would be a major mistake.

This reality should make us behave more realistically. In other words, we were euphoric when the Iraqis went to vote. We should have said that’s a great step, but now we have to have a society in which people can live freely, raise their families in a secure environment, respect the government and live by the rule of law.

So we should not be euphoric over the fact that somebody holds an election and everybody goes to vote. I believe that this nation is grounded in Wilsonian principles, but there is also a constant tension with realpolitik— America’s national security interests. America is the only nation in the world where there really is that constant tension or dichotomy between the two principles. Of course, we don’t want to see the House of Saud taken over by Islamic extremists and go the way of Iran with the fall of the Shah. But we also have to understand that, unless there is progress in Saudi Arabia, sooner or later they will fall. So that’s a mixture of realpolitik and Wilsonian principles.

Are we willing to support every nation in the world’s advocacy of freedom? I hope so. But at the same time we have to also act in what is our national interest. It was a lot easier in the Cold War, when we would align with countries because they were against the Russians. Now it’s far more complicated.

DOMESTIC POLITICS | Since 9/11 we now have a reversal of the traditional priorities of elections. Generally speaking, you could almost gauge the outcome of elections by the economy. Now that issue has been trumped by “the war on terror.” It’s clear that we Republicans were able to frame the national debate in 2004 over who was best equipped to fight the war on terror. That remains, I think, an issue that is very important in the minds of most Americans. And understandably. We received a national shock on 9/11. Although we have recovered, it’s still an issue that resonates significantly with the American people.

I’m one of those who is not embarrassed to say I pay attention to polls. I’ve always believed what the famous French revolutionary, Marat, said: Show me where my people are going so I can get out in front and lead them.