April 12, 2005

America needs to step up to the bullies

Remember third grade? I do. There were kids who liked to play soccer, the ones who hung out in the corner eating the string cheese their moms packed for them, the kids who staked out their "space" on the jungle gym or on the four-square court, and a host of others all doing their thing in either small or big spaces.

And then you've got the bullies. These are the kids who, for whatever reason, push the others around. They steal the other kids' basketballs, they beat up the kids wearing glasses and take their lunch money, and they get detention from the teachers.

Come to think of it, the playground is a lot like the world today. Kickball, mud fights, the jungle gym, the nifty jeep-thing built out of metal on springs. And bullies.

I like this metaphor. The only problem with it is that, in the real world, there are no teachers. In fact, there aren't any playground monitors, either. In the real world its just us on the playground. In the real world we just have to deal with the bullies.

The problem with action in the midst of inaction is that it intimidates everybody, since the perception among the body politic is that, if nobody vocally or physically opposes an action such as bullying, it has tacit approval from all. This, unfortunately, is not the case, but if you read Malcolm Gadwell's seminal work The Tipping Point, you realize that all it takes is one bully to demonstrate to the playground that nobody is going to stand up for what's right; sooner or later everybody thinks that they can just push each other around.

How do we make the playground a fair place for all kids to play? How do we make the playground a place where freedom and justice, those two ineffable qualities most high, are the governing dynamics?

The answer comes along with one final detail from third grade. You'll have to think for a while about this one because it's something we don't always remember, but I guarantee that you'll agree with me after a while. It's the fact that the biggest kid on the playground usually isn't the bully. Usually he's with the rest of us, too shy to do anything, or unaware of his true strength. I don't know why the biggest kids weren't usually the bullies, I just remember fighting with a fat kid in third grade who tried to bully me into giving up my lunch money.

The nice "envelope structure" of this column demands that I explicitly state that right now, we're the biggest kid on the playground. America has the best technology, the largest skilled army, the biggest economy, the most resources, and the ability to go anywhere at any time.

It isn't going to last.

As U of C professor Allen Bloom intoned in his seminal work The Closing of the

American Mind, "This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged." Will we be proud when our time in the spotlight is over? What will the American legacy be?

Now, the shocking closer: What we have seen over the past month since the election has confounded all the assumptions made about the Middle East. Iraq has just elected not only a parliament, but also a president and a prime minister. Democratic reform is on the march in the Ukrane, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon. What was the catalyst? Our violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Think about it. We essentially kicked the ass of one of the biggest, baddest bullies on the playground. For years, Saddam had been beating up his neighbors (Iran, Kuwait, Israel), sponsoring regional terrorism in Israel, and threatening to attack the West. He did this while we let him enrich his family and his cronies with the U.N. Oil-for-Food program.

There is no playground monitor. The U.N.—and I'm a fan of UNICEF as much as the next guy—has no meaningful enforcement mechanism to prevent evil where evil is determined to rise. In this world, the spread of freedom and justice is up to those willing and powerful enough to stand up for it. And right now, that's us.

Does this have anything to do with the fight against Osama bin Laden and Islamic extremism? In fact, it does. The promotion of a free, prosperous, and democratic world attacks Al Qaeda at its deepest roots. But more on that in my next column.