Memorial Day 2009: Dueling Visions of America
Memorial Day is, or at least ought to be, about the sacrifices Americans have made, which it generally is, but also about what those whose lives were taken died for (which it is less often). Granted, it is a general platitude of Memorial Day speeches that those who fell did so to guarantee our freedom, but the question left unanswered is what kind of freedom?
President Obama and former Vice President Cheney have been engaged in a strange dialogue on this subject, highlighted (if that is the right word) by their back-to-back speeches last week. The debate is strange because it is not clear why an enormously popular sitting president should pay attention the CYA rantings of a hugely unpopular former VP. There is certainly no political gain in this for Obama, while Cheney gets to build a public record of self-vindication for what he did in office. George W. Bush, appropriately, sits silently in his home in Dallas.
These two men have very strong, opposing visions of what it is to be American and hence what can and cannot be done to defend that America. Is America Ronald Reagan’s shining city on the hill, a place that gains its stature and meaning because of its ideals and their application? Or is the United States just another great power with interests and values like other great powers and a situational view about what can and should be done in its name?
This is not a new distinction or debate. Since the beginning of American history, there have been proposals and actions taken by the American government in the name of American security that clashed with, even violated, the founding principles on which the country was formed. Thomas Jefferson played fast and loose with American ideals in dealing with the Barbary pirates, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on the grounds of saving the union, and FDR impounded U.S. citizens of Japanese-American backgrounds. Creating Guantanamo and engaging in enhanced interrogation techniques is part of this tradition. Its marquee is the necessity of states to protect themselves, even if some American ideals are compromised in the process. This is the position that Dick Cheney defends. He is neither the first not likely the last to do so.
The other side of the coin is that America cannot violate its own principles without diminishing itself as a special place: an America that would violate its own principles is not the same America we like to think it to be; it becomes just another state, like those with less lofty beliefs about themselves. This is the position of American idealism and is the vision Obama has sought to portray.
I am reminded of a similar debate during the Cold War over the kinds of things the CIA should be permitted to do. It centered on the question of covert operations, and especially “wet” operations (actions involving killing people). Manyof the kind of activities that were debated involved breaking American laws and the laws of countries in which the acts occurred: murder, bribery, influence peddling, and the like. Those who supported CIA actions in this area argued essentially situational ethics: the Soviets, they argued quite accurately, did these things, and the United States will be disadvantaged if it cannot do them too. In the Cold War competition, the necessities of state trumped the niceties of American values, adherence to which was an unsustainable luxury. Opponents argued that doing these things made us no better than the adversary, whom we opposed because his values were inferior and anathema to us. Can the United States remain pure if it acts in impure ways? We in fact did these things and survived the Cold War. Does that make it okay to have done what we did?
The same kind of argument is going on today, although it is made less theoretical because those who made decisions to “go beyond” American ideals apparently committed real, enforceable crimes–violations of both American and international law. That makes their defense on national security grounds more pressing than it did if one was, for example, debating on whether a CIA operative violated the law by trying to fix a corrupt election somewhere in the Third World during the Cold War. Nonetheless, the argument still goes back to the question of what can be done in the name of America without changing–tarnishing?–what it means to be American.
The current debate will not end the controversy, because there will almost certainly be crises in the future that are analogous to those in the past, where the same options and questions will arise. In the end, it boils down to what can and should be done to protect the United States from its enemies–an d from itself.