Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Bush Has Created Bizarro World on World Democracy

Yeah. Like Bizarro Superman. Superman's exact opposite, who lives in the backwards bizarro world. Up is down. Down is up. He says "Hello" when he leaves, "Good bye" when he arrives.
- Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) to Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in "The Bizarro Jerry" episode of "Seinfeld," written by David Mandel and first aired on Oct. 3, 1996

Let me get this out of the way, right off the top, so there is no misunderstanding: Iran has a dangerous, reprehensible, oppressive, religiously-fanatic government that represents a bigger threat to the world than virtually any other nation on earth (calm down, North Korea, you guys are one-A to Iran's number one ranking). Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is, at best, insane, and, at worst, evil, and in any case is potentially capable of atrocities at the level of Hitler and Stalin.

And, Russia's recent slide from democracy, including the news in a New York Times article yesterday that President Vladimir Putin supports an extension of presidential terms and a strengthening of executive power, not to mention Russia's threats regarding plans for NATO missiles in Eastern Europe, is quite troubling.

Or, put another way, I will not be heading to Tehran or Moscow on vacation anytime soon. Hell, I'm uncomfortable walking past Persian restaurants and subways headed to Brighton Beach.

That is why I found it so incredibly infuriating when I read recent statements about the U.S. from Ahmadinejad and Putin over the last two days, and I couldn't even argue with them. Based on the damaging policies of President George W. Bush, we no longer have the moral authority to oppose these dangerous individuals.

Yesterday, a Yahoo!/AP article reported that Ahmadinejad said about his country's nuclear program, "It is too late to stop the progress of Iran." The article later related that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini suggested that the U.S. had no right to criticize Iran, claiming in a written statement, "Instead of offering inefficient suggestions, America should assess its own tactics — secret prisons, mistreatment and even inhuman treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib."

Similarly, in the Times article, Putin offered a defense of his democratic record, saying, "Let’s see what is happening in North America — sheer horror: torture, the homeless, Guantánamo, detention without a trial or investigation."

Sure, both men were missing the point. Even if the U.S. is engaging in reprehensible conduct, it does not make it right for other countries to do so, as well. It's like the little kid who gets caught stealing a candy bar arguing that it's okay because his buddy had stolen one, too. And, of course, the comparison is not equal on its face, as the Iranians and Russians would like you to believe. As potentially harmful as Bush's incursions on American democracy have been, they do not rise to the level of the threats to democracy posed by Putin, and certainly not to the oppression of his own people practiced by Ahmadinejad and his government.

But, has it really come to this? Has it reached a point that a dangerous tyrant and a potentially dangerous leader with a questionable record can speak out, knowing that the country that was once the moral authority in the world can say nothing because it has, itself, slipped into the club of governments that don't respect the rule of law?

With all the failures of the Bush presidency, potentially the most damaging and dangerous by-product of the administration's policies is that, in perception and in fact, the U.S. is no longer a country that occupies the moral high ground as the white knight of democracy in the world.

I fully understand that 20th Century American history is littered with odious incidents of the U.S. improperly exerting its power in far-flung parts of the world in the name of furthering democracy. Just ask the people of Chile, Cambodia and, of course, Iran about that. And, we absolutely failed democratic movements in other countries, supporting absolute governments that were loyal to the U.S. even as they denied rights to the majority of their people (again, Iranians can tell you all about this).

But, within the borders of the U.S. and in our conducting of wars, democracy and the rule of law ran supreme. Not anymore. Now we conduct warrantless wiretaps on our own citizens. Now we have a Patriot Act that rolls back civil liberties to a level that I'm sure made the bones of Jefferson and Adams spin in unison in their graves. Now we have a prison at Guantanamo Bay where people are held for years without being charged, just like in the countries we criticize like Iran and Russia. Now we pile naked Iraqis into human pyramids and have prisoners die in our custody, when we used to point to Japanese and Vietnamese prison camps as improperly treating Americans. Now, although we push and pull the language until it's more bent out of shape than a Stretch Armstrong toy after a few hours with a pit bull, we torture people, either by doing it ourselves (waterboarding is not an X Games competition) or by sending them to torturers in "friendly" countries. These are just a few of the items on the Bush administration rap sheet.

Bush tells us that these affronts to democracy are necessary to protect our way of life from the terrorists. But, if we keep taking away basic human rights, what is left to protect? He is stripping America of what made it special as a beacon of democracy.

During the Cold War, it was easy to distinguish right from wrong. "News" that came from the Kremlin was generally devoid of facts and came from the imagination of a propaganda machine. Now, when Hosseini or Putin call the U.S. on its atrocities, they're not spinning fiction. They're stating facts, and in doing so, they can divert the discussion from their own atrocities and dangerous policies. Ironically, that is the very tactic used so effectively by the Bush White House.

The result is potentially calamitous. In the 20th Century, the U.S., while hardly perfect, had clean hands when it said to countries that committed human rights violations against its citizens, "You're doing it wrong. Be more like us." Now, thanks to Bush, when we say that, the countries can respond, "Wait, we ARE more like you." And that's reprehensible. It's bad enough that Bush's folly in Iraq has left us militarily unprepared to confront Iran, but the immoral way in which he has run the country has left us with diminished moral authority to oppose this dangerous nation. If, thanks to Bush, we cannot stand up to Iran's nuclear program or Russia's move towards absolutism, who will?

It's like we've entered the Superman bizarro world that formed the basis of the "Seinfeld" episode I quoted at the top of this piece. In the world I grew up in, the U.S. was the good guy, and the other countries, like Iran and the Soviet Union, were the clear villains. But now? Iran, for sure, is still a super villain, and a more powerful one at that, but it's hard to argue that the U.S. is a superhero. Not much of what Bush has done has stood for "truth, justice and the American way."