Enlightenment Returns

Posted January 2, 2006

Categories: Articles

Immediately after the 2004 elections, U.S. historian Garry Wills described the results as “the day the Enlightenment went out.” He was plainly worried about the impact of fundamentalism not only on the electorate but on Enlightenment values such as “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.” Wills, by the way, is a Catholic and a self-described conservative (see his brilliant 1979 book Confessions of a Conservative). These credentials make his warnings about the collapsing wall between church and state—for example in this recent piece in The New York Review of Books with its lucid section on “faith-based war”—all the more persuasive.

The retreat from Enlightenment values has not involved simply the injection of creationism in the classroom or the Stone Age approach to stem-cell research. Wills discussed how the Bush administration rationalized the Iraq War in a way that insulted the critical intelligence of Americans. The Manichean war on terrorism has been no exemplar of tolerance. Torture policy has shown no respect for evidence (or human rights).

Do the 2006 elections mark a return of the Enlightenment?

American voters clearly repudiated the Bush administration’s military-first foreign policy. FPIF policy outreach director Erik Leaver points out in his analysis of the election’s impact on Iraq policy, the desire for a change not only influenced many of the campaigns for national office but also state-wide initiatives. In Cook County, Illinois, for example, 80% voted yes for a referendum question that asked: “Shall the United States Government immediately begin an orderly and rapid withdrawal of all its military personnel from Iraq, beginning with the National Guard and Reserves?”

The resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a more ambiguous signal. “Changing personalities at the Pentagon does not necessarily mean that policy will change,” writes FPIF contributor Dan Smith. “In fact, Bush stated flatly that the goal is still ‘victory’—an Iraq that can defend itself from terrorists and the meddling of its neighbors, provide basic services for its people, and is fully integrated into the world economy.” Robert Gates, who took the hardline position against the Soviet Union in the Bush Sr. administration, is probably not the best person to bring Enlightenment values back to the Pentagon (see Jim Mann’s useful op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post).

The elections also removed several key voices of moderation on foreign policy issues. Republican Jim Leach was a quiet but effective voice on the House International Relations Committee who countered the administration’s “axis of evil” rhetoric. And Republican Lincoln Chafee continues in this lame-duck session to fight the good fight by opposing John Bolton’s appointment to the UN in the Senate.

Enlightenment is clearly not the monopoly of any one party. Indeed, in order to demonstrate that they are not “weak” on national security issues, Democrats have often taken harder line positions than their Republican counterparts. If the Dems push for troop withdrawal from Iraq, expect compensation in the form of more “robust” stands elsewhere in the world. So, whether the election returns indicate the “beginning of the end of a six-year nightmare for the world,” as the European Socialists so eloquently declared, is not yet clear.

Youth Activism

FPIF debuted a new feature this week that will look at foreign policy from the perspective of young activists. Department editor Saif Rahman kicks off the feature with a piece on how young people view the elections and the war in Iraq.

“Of the over 2,800 deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the majority of them are under the age of 25,” Rahman writes. “As the death toll rises, the military has increased their efforts to recruit young people. Recruiters are preying on youth from our high school hallways to MySpace, to get us to sign up for the military, and then, the “Stop Loss” program forces them to stay after their time is up. The United States has spent almost $400 billion on this war, while it has also made the largest cut in history to federal aid for college, cut funding for the Department of Education, cut job training programs and cut veteran benefits.”

Veteran benefits are also the subject of Conn Hallinan’s Veterans Day commentary. “Modern battlefields are toxic nightmares, filled with depleted uranium ammunition, exotic explosives, and deadly cluster bomblets,” explains Hallinan. “The soldiers are shot up with experimental vaccines that can have dangerous side effects from additives like squalene. In short, soldiers are not only under fire, they are assaulted by their own weapons systems and medical procedures.” Coming home, vets face a skeptical Veterans Administration and a tough procedure to get medical benefits. The U.S. government has shown more willingness to believe in WMD in Iraq than PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) in its own soldiers.

Oaxaca and Gaza and Cuba

While the U.S. public has focused on the elections and Iraq, conflict has escalated elsewhere in the world. In Oaxaca, a poor region of Mexico, a teacher’s strike has snowballed into a full-scale confrontation between the disenfranchised, organized now into the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), and the federal government. The teachers initially asked for a pay raise. But now a range of issues from election fraud to NAFTA are in the mix.

“Too often in the North, the reports of protest and rebellion around the world are seen as disparate battles or isolated complaints and not as part of a growing consensus that something is gravely wrong. Those who have benefited from free trade rules, especially those living in countries that designed these rules, have a responsibility to get the message,” writes IRC Americas Program director Laura Carlsen in her latest FPIF column. “What could have been a local conflict has detonated a national confrontation and contributed to the revival of violent factions. The government’s lack of political will has blocked real negotiations. It has failed to respond to Oaxaca’s valid demands and open up talks on the reforms needed to assure Mexico’s peace and stability. Instead, the country is now perilously close to the opposite.”

In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli attacks last week left 19 civilians dead. The United States subsequently blocked a UN resolution condemning Israel for the attacks. FPIF contributor Anthony Newkirk provides background to this conflict in his new piece on Israel’s military offensive over the summer, the political and economic pressures that the United States and EU are putting on the Palestinian Authority, and what an alternative U.S. policy might look like.

Finally, FPIF contributor Wayne Smith takes apart U.S. policy toward Cuba. The 44-year-old embargo against the small island is the world’s worst advertisement for the efficacy of regime change strategies. Fidel is still around, and there are no more screws to tighten.

“The approach the United States should take toward Cuba, rather than the dead-end policy it is now following, is also obvious,” Smith writes. “The Cold War is over. Cuba poses no threat whatever to the United States. We have normal trade and diplomatic relations with China and Vietnam, two other communist states, so why not with Cuba?”

FPIF, November 13, 2006

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