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The Academic View: Patriotism and war

By
ALON BEN-MEIR

NEW YORK, March 24 (UPI) -- "Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." -- George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796.


As the war against Iraq unfolds, Americans of all religious denominations, political affiliations and races have rightfully rallied around the flag to express their unflinching support of our men and women in uniform fighting for a cause they believe in.

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The solidarity of support for our troops, however, must not create the impression that criticizing the administration's policy toward Iraq is unpatriotic. Indeed, remaining silent in the face of the administration's terrible diplomatic blunders amounts to nothing less than a betrayal of the very values and principles that seem to me to define an American patriot.

If patriotism may mean, as President Kennedy stated in his Inaugural Address: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," then to do our duty to our country in the current situation is to question the rationale for the rush to war. We have to be critical of the administration's explanations in order to prevent its making further diplomatic blunders in dealing with other countries that it deems a threat, such as Iran and North Korea, which either already possess weapons of mass destruction or have the potential to develop or obtain them. This is no time for the politics of "virtue," especially since this administration's foreign and domestic initiatives have demonstrated the cold pretense behind such affirmations.

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Many American patriots in the administration have grown too shrewd to be sincere, and our own patriotism demands that we be too wise to trust them readily. As the philosopher Ralph Barton Perry famously said: "If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, it is not merely because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism ... but because patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinction altogether."

And it is that concern -- the moral distinction between right and wrong -- that this administration has blurred, perhaps to its own detriment, as sooner rather than later it will have to clean up the diplomatic mess it has left behind.

The events of 9/11 have unquestionably sharpened the American people's sense of patriotism, chiefly because it has changed our perception of our own vulnerability, brought to a focus fears and concerns about future threats, and galvanized our collective stance to deal with them.

Patriotism, in this sense, has evolved into a shield against imminent dangers, however unquantifiable. But many both inside and outside the administration have taken this mandate to the extreme.

Supported by this new public mindset, the administration has initiated measures, some of them extreme, to combat future threats, be they home-grown or emanating from overseas. In the process, it has pre-empted patriotism to the point where criticism of any of these initiatives has been made to appear unpatriotic.

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Isn't it the opposite, with the true patriots being those who speak out of a deep-seated belief and conviction about what is right or wrong about America rather than those who blindly follow a party line and seek refuge in patriotism? I

believe that this is precisely what George Washington meant when he cautioned: "Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism."

In the context of recent events, it has become increasingly clear that every

domestic and foreign policy initiative of this administration during the past two years was designed to serve its fixation on ousting Saddam Hussein.

The list includes our treatment of our European friends and allies, our bullying

approach to the U.N. Security Council, our "whimsical" overtures toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the so-called "road map for peace," our downgrading of the real dangers emanating from the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, and even our war on terrorism itself.

Domestically, the administration's presumed involvement with problems related to Social Security, prescription drugs and education were all choreographed to generate public support for the war, irrespective of the long-term implications for the nation as a whole.

The people demonstrating in New York and San Francisco against the war in Iraq are no less patriotic than those who opposing the Vietnam War were dismissed at the time as unpatriotic misguided fools. But history has shown that the people who protested our military involvement in Vietnam were true American patriots, not those administration officials who engaged in public deception about the merits of the war and its consequences. They have betrayed not only the public trust, but the very values that have sustained this nation from its inception.

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No, we cannot afford to take this administration's word for granted either. For now it may be a good idea for every American patriot to adopt the state of Missouri's motto: "Show Me." Meanwhile, we can all pray that the current conflict with Iraq ends with the most minimal loss of American and Iraqi lives.

And in the event of a relatively easy military victory, we must also hope that this will not embolden the administration to plan for its next foreign adventure. In addition, we need to be cautious not to measure victory by a decisive defeat of the Iraqi army, which is a given anyway. A more realistic measure might be how we extract ourselves from Iraq and how peaceful will be the Middle East that we leave behind. In a larger sense, ultimate victory will largely depend on how the government mends its broken relationships with so many nations and international organizations whose help and support we will soon need, for the

war against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has only begun.

The words "duty," "honor," and "country" have always exemplified our patriotism

as Americans, and inherent in these words is a solemn responsibility to do, speak, and think out of a true conviction about what is good and right for our nation. American patriotism, however, is also a strong passion, and as such is not perfect. Yet in its imperfection lies its glory. While patriotism may be a last refuge for scoundrels, it also remains the source of the strength of the great and unprecedented American enterprise.

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(Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East Project director at the World Policy Institute in New York, is a professor of International Relations at New York University.)

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