There must have been a brief moment in time, a frozen second like a glance at a swinging pendulum, when those who rooted for freedom in the streets of 1789 Paris began to realize that they had traded despot for despot. And I’m sure that those Chinese villagers who expected peace and respect from the Communist revolution but got famine and abuse instead shared this feeling. Both revolutions were idealism confronted by reality, hope checked by depravity.
There was a time when Americans could believe in the exceptional nature of our nation and in the unique and “self-evident” protections of our constitution. From the sea of authoritarianism and monarchy emerged a community founded on revolutionary principles of the rule of law and justice, one that held the government accountable to the people and not the other way around.
The more I learn about the true state of our nation and our foreign policy, the more I begin to feel that dark moment of clarity in which one realizes that reality is far uglier than one hoped. And the more I learn, the more I empathize with that indescribable stillness that occurs when a man or woman realizes he or she is fooled.
Perhaps the most emblematic example of the contradiction between American principles and actions is its current drone policy. Our new ability to send unmanned aircraft into areas of conflict and execute enemies from afar has permitted us an incredible freedom to act. Internally, there is currently no public reporting mechanism to relate the number of civilians or “enemy combatants” killed by drone strikes around the world. Our government has been freely exercising its ability to murder anyone anywhere in the world. No habeas corpus, no nothing.
In 2011, a 16-year-old American citizen, Abdulraham Al-Awlaki, was sitting with his father in Yemen when a missile ended his young life. By virtue of the Constitution he was supposedly entitled to a just trial by his peers, but this teenager never had the chance of self-realization or independence. Far from the peaceful hills of Palo Alto, this is the reality that many civilians face. Drone strikes generally have collateral damage, and in many cases a mere association with someone on the CIA’s death list can be cause for your murder. As for Abdulraham, advocates took his case to court but nothing came of the trial. His grandfather wrote a piece in The New York Times last year (linked above) which claims that he has not even heard from the American government on the subject of his grandson’s death.
Our foreign policy is so far from its original principles that it has become unclear whether we even have a foreign policy at all. Vladimir Putin has been dancing around the inefficiency and inconsistency of our foreign policy machine since the Snowden debacle. He picked up that the American bark is louder than its bite after the Syrian red line controversy and applied that lesson to his invasion of Crimea. America can strike nearly everywhere, but it cannot enforce its will everywhere, and as the world moves towards multi-polarity, the costs of our foreign fumbles are going to become greater and greater.
What sets us apart from other countries, however, is that our population – if not our politicians – genuinely believes in the values espoused by our constitution. I also have faith that our democracy is receptive to change. Being American means that we have a responsibility to make sure that we feed the bright light that is the American experiment while being conscious of the shadows our choices create. Our drone policy is a heck of a shadow.
Contact Anthony Ghosn at anghosn “at” stanford.edu.