Recently read an interesting piece in The Atlantic and came across an excerpt that, to me, was one of the more striking things Obama has said (if he did, in fact, say it):
In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.
Now, having heard many opinions on this very same topic, given my background and experiences, I can relate that some would argue that Islam, being a Christian sect of sorts in some views, will never cease being prone to exploitation by militaristic, fringe elements, simply because it is a sect that is irrevocably shaped by its own history and explicit association with military conquest. Much like some versions of Communism, so this argument goes, Islam can only succeed via expansion, typically military.
Being neither a theologian nor a deeply learned historian, I can offer the highest cultural and scientific achievements of primarily Islamic states – e.g. the Golden Age centered in Andalusia – as a counterpoint to that view. Others would go further, and argue that primarily Islamic countries could be no different than, say, Protestant England, and consequently could overcome tribal divisions and end the sectarian warfare, eventually, that characterized England prior to unity as Great Britain.
Frankly, in my never-ending quest to please no one, I think both arguments have good points, but I have to admit that, much like the Obama depicted throughout that Atlantic piece, I lean toward the realistic approach that in the end, countries afflicted with such tribal divisions and resulting sectarian violence will have to, by and large, sort it out themselves.
The role of America is not to bring peace, necessarily, unless atrocities on a large enough scale are occurring, but help foster the conditions for peace to flourish. Additional violence is unlikely to bring that about. But that view must be tempered by the fact that self-defense begins not at home, but abroad. Obama is accordingly employing drone strikes, which I am still deeply ambivalent about. I am a Catholic, after all, and one of the clearest commandments is about killing. Such unilateral actions as drone strikes really seem to me to stretch the boundaries of what can be constituted as legitimate self-defense. The sad truth is that drone strikes are an improvement over, say, sending in American troops or even an assassin. And an even sadder truth is that it’s simply not feasible to extract people determined to foment terrorism and imprison them somewhere, as opposed to simply offing them.
But continually questioning whether or not drones should be used is what is crucial. It goes hand in hand with the only way to prevent processes and strategies from falling into ruins – continual tinkering, updating, refreshing and critically examining what is working, what hasn’t, and what can be improved. American foreign policy all too often swings like a pendulum, as the article illustrates, and even if we are in a period of retrenchment right now, especially when we consider Donald Trump’s isolationist, xenophobic rhetoric, we must not abandon being open to helping other nations and groups within nations.
As stated in the article, exertion of military power is actually a sign of weakness. The essence of power is to be able to get what you want without having to strive for it, after all. I agree with a greater focus on Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, as Obama calls for in the article, particularly as economic alliances, shrewd investment and fostering of relations (e.g. increased student visa allotments, tax breaks for multinationals investing in infrastructure, etc.) are precisely the kind of soft power that Americans don’t necessarily seem to focus on nearly as much.
Fear is dominating headlines because, well, that’s what we’re hardwired to respond to by evolution. Accordingly, we focus on military action to the detriment of adopting more dovish policies whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is necessary for the U.S. to have the most powerful military in the world simply because it’s the world’s best bet for peace (unless someone like Trump gets elected), but the hyperfocus on where and when to conduct military actions and/or the agonizing over our current, long-running wars is damaging as it skews perspectives.
By nature, being an irrepressible optimist, even if deeply pragmatic, colors my outlook. But, as I’ve seen in the course of my travels and reading, my counterparts abroad have wondered where, exactly, ordinary Americans seemed to lose the sense of optimism and resilience that characterized us in both our own national narratives and our depictions abroad. Was it 9/11? Or was it the ensuing decade of neverending warfare and a brutal economic crash? Probably both, but if any one people in the world can and should reclaim that sense of ourselves, it’s Americans. It is difficult, in the face of increasing income inequality, and a growing sense of helplessness, particularly as fringe veins of rage and racism rear their ugly heads again this election cycle, but it is imperative that we do so.
Being the leader of the free world isn’t just about what elected officials in D.C. do. In an increasingly hyperconnected world, it’s about what we, as individuals, can do. It’s about engaging even on a personal level, or a local level, much like James Fallows shows in another Atlantic piece. It’s tough, and I, for one, am all too often about finally finishing the latest House of Cards season, instead. But simply participating in local elections, or seeking to stay informed in civic discourse, being unafraid to debate in a courteous fashion, is all crucial, particularly as Americans. The best of the ideals this nation was founded on are comprised of those key notions, after all.