The truth, of course, is much more complicated, and the revolutionary dominoes of the Middle East have exposed the ugly underbelly of American foreign policy, which supposedly balances pragmatism and moral idealism.
Regrettably, our policies in the Middle East since World War II have become far too embedded in pragmatism. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations have indulged dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, so long as they repressed Islamists and kept the cheap oil flowing.
Today’s season of upheaval presents an opportunity for America to return to a foreign policy based fundamental principles that tell us who we are as a country.
America’s founding was centered on the moral principle of human equality, a postulate that – like it or not — is rooted in belief in the Creator God. Today we fight about whether theistic language, or talk of good and evil, even belongs in public life. But the belief that God has made us equal has always been the strongest basis on which to argue for universal justice.
Though we have routinely fallen short of our own values, clear moral vision has inspired the finest moments in U.S. history. Compromises with oppressive regimes, conversely, have raised legitimate questions about the consistency of the American commitment to justice for all people.
The patriots of the American Revolution crafted the core belief of America’s moral vision, the idea that “all men are created equal.” Before God, everyone has a fundamental dignity that no person can justly deny.
Yet even the patriots struggled to reconcile their moral vision of equality with the reality of American slavery. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” mused Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself.
People still crave moral vision, even in foreign affairs. Twenty-eight years ago, President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Reagan’s demonization of the Soviets elicited guffaws from cultural elites, yet it resonated with average Americans — as well as Eastern European dissidents — who knew that the Soviets’ oppressive regime was indeed the malevolent power of the Cold War generation.
Amid the turmoil in the Middle East and the recent allied military intervention in Libya, we need clarity about our guiding principles. Yes, the situation in the Middle East is highly complex – but that complexity makes moral vision all the more necessary.
Our commitment to such core values as freedom of religion, speech and the press and the right to peaceable assembly derives from the confidence, as Jefferson wrote, that those “liberties are the gift of God.”
Belief in God-given liberty is still the most compelling reason to defend freedom around the world and liberty in the new Middle East. Our politicians can react in one of two ways: The pragmatist will hedge and stutter, while the moral leader will cast a vision for what a good and just future might hold.
THOMAS S. KIDD is senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and the author of “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.”