An election year in America guarantees a debate about patriotism, particularly when the country is at war. It is not a political discourse about a citizen’s moral duty to do what they can to serve their country. I mean a debate in which patriotism is used as a weapon of attack in a brutish and nasty manner for character assassination, to depict a hitherto established politician as a dangerous or juvenile individual, who cannot be trusted with national security. Such tactics were deployed at their worst against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election by his Republican opponent, George Bush Senior. Bush Junior, the current incumbent in the White House, used the weapon of patriotism against John Kerry, whose notable war record was disparaged by the neo-conservatives.
I have been an observer of US politics for well over three decades. Experience tells me that the Republicans have an advantage in this nasty, brutish fight and are willing to deploy the weapon of patriotism ruthlessly against their opponents. In the election campaign that has barely started, there have been some bruising episodes in the Democratic nomination battle as well. I recall Hillary Clinton’s warning that if the Iranian regime threatened Israel, she, as president, would obliterate the Iranian nation. I, a European, found the rhetoric frightening. Had President Ahmadinejad of Iran not used exactly the same kind of rhetoric, wishing that Israel was not on the map? So what was the difference? One meant to impress Iran’s Shi’a population. The other America’s Jewish voters. I do not believe either Ahmadinejad or Clinton was serious about obliterating any country. They know very well the consequences.
Hillary Clinton’s more realistic, and calculated, aim was to make Barack Obama look weak. Now that the Democratic Party’s nomination is settled, the electoral battle for the real prize, the White House, begins. It is going to be more nasty. Questions about each candidate’s experience, suitability and patriotism are going to be raised, accusations and counter-accusations will intensify and so will personal attacks. When the stakes are high and the battle is fierce, chauvinism and intolerance are often not far. I am struck by how narrow the meaning of patriotism can become in these situations.
The recent visit of Barack Obama to Iraq is not surprising. Supporters of his Republican rival, John McCain, continue to focus on the question of ‘patriotism’ and qualifications to be commander-in-chief of the United States. It is because McCain’s knowledge of the minutiae of the economy and international terrorism is poor.
This brings me to the meaning of patriotism. Is it McCain’s assertion to keep American forces in Iraq for ‘a hundred years’? Or Obama’s suggestion that, if elected, he would like to withdraw the American occupation forces from Iraq in eighteen months, to concentrate on securing and rebuilding Afghanistan, which is rapidly sinking into the type of chaos that existed before 9/11? McCain displays a determination bereft of tact and sensitivity – qualities which the next American president will need. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has recently made it plain that his government wants to see a date set for America’s military withdrawal in the near future. Obama’s position is more nuanced, reflects sensitivity and gives America more room for maneuver. McCain, the old warrior, is locked in the mindset of Vietnam while Obama represents a generation that, in general, does not carry the same baggage.
Seven years after George W Bush started his foreign adventure called ‘the war on terror’, America shows a greater willingness to examine the journey it has undertaken and the trials and tribulations it has gone through. But, as a country, it still finds it difficult to disagree with its commander-in-chief, who is elected by the American people and who must be accountable to them. More than two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, said something that is as true today as it was then. “Dissent,” he said, “is the highest form of patriotism.” And he went on, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
The spirit of dissent, fortunately, lives on more comfortably in Europe, even in Britain where Tony Blair, now ex-prime minister, was the closest ally of George W Bush in the ‘war on terror’. Even as he secured the British Parliament’s approval to invade Iraq, as it turned out on a false premise, Blair could not succeed in creating groupthink – a condition in which a body of people accepts, and conforms to, prevailing points of view uncritically.
Carl Schurz, German revolutionary, later American statesman and reformer, got it about right when he said, “My Country! When right, keep it right; when wrong, set it right!” The maxim explains the difference between patriotism and jingoism, an outburst of extreme emotions that come out in the form of aggressive foreign policy.
The above article appeared in Online Journal on 25 July 2008.