Lost Lessons from the War on Communism

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One would think that, having spent the second half of the twentieth century fighting one protractrated struggle against an implacable ideological enemy, we might have learned something. The Bush administration’s actions would seem to indicate that we did not. What should we have learned? That in a war of ideals, ideals that are not practiced do not triumph.

Of course, it is a laughable farce to say that al Quaeda hates us because they hate freedom and other such claptrap that the Bushies pretend. They do hate our values (secularist, consumerist), but then so do most of Bush’s supporters these days. But mostly they developed and became opponents to the US because we insist not only on being the cops of the world, but because we have spent most of our history propping up dictatorships and crushing indigenous democratic movements from Vietnam to Chile to Iran.

Our efforts in that regard came back to haunt us during the Cold War with distasters in Vietnam, Iran and South and Central America. The narrow lesson that we should have taken away, was that supporting repressive dictatorships in the name freedom is inane. The broader lesson we should have taken away was that putting noble ideals into action is the most effective weapon in a war of ideals. Where insurgents rallied to the communists during the Cold War, it was usually because the United States had shamefully compromised the essence of our founding principles by supporting repressive regimes and human rights violators in those places. In places where the United States stood on its principles and respected human rights and basic freedoms, human rights activists and freedom-loving people rallied to the United States.

It is a challenge to believe that just principles will beat weapons in the end and, during the Cold War, having lost faith in that belief, we often allowed ourselves to choose expendiency, and that came back to bite us. Now, we see the Bush adminsitration behaving in the same way – wire taps, illegal detentions, torture – all fundamental violations of the founding principles of our democracy, all of which give lie to the idea that we care about democracy at all. Will freedom fighters in Islamic countries rally to a country with powerful weapons and impotent ideals, ignored at home and abroad?

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