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Replant the American Dream

By David Ignatius
Friday, November 25, 2005

When I lived abroad, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. It was a chance to scrounge up a turkey, gather foreign and American friends, and celebrate what America represented to the world. I liked to give a sentimental toast when the turkey arrived at the table, and more than once I had my foreign guests in tears. They loved the American dream as much as I did.

I don't think Americans realize how much we have tarnished those ideals in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years. The public opinion polls tell us that America isn't just disliked or feared overseas -- it is reviled. We are seen as hypocrites who boast of our democratic values but who behave lawlessly and with contempt for others. I hate this America-bashing, but when I try to defend the United States and its values in my travels abroad, I find foreigners increasingly are dismissive. How do you deny the reality of Abu Ghraib, they ask, when the vice president of the United States is actively lobbying against rules that would ban torture?

Of all the reversals the United States has suffered in recent years, this may be the worst. We are slowly shredding the fabric that defines what it means to be an American.

Not so long ago our country really was seen as different. Foreigners queued up outside any institution that called itself an "American university," hoping for a chance at their piece of the dream. My own ancestors were educated at such a college, and their children's and grandchildren's success in the new land was part of a global chain of American affirmation and renewal.

We are eating up this seed corn. That's what I have seen in recent years. We inherited incredible riches of goodwill -- a world that admired our values and wanted a seat at our table -- and we have been squandering them. The Bush administration didn't begin this wasting of American ideals, but it has been making the problem worse. Certainly George W. Bush has been spending our international political capital at an astounding clip.

When I began traveling as a foreign correspondent 25 years ago, I thought I understood what the face of evil looked like. There were governments that used torture against their enemies; they might call it "enhanced interrogation" or some other euphemism, but it was torture, and you just hoped, as an American, that you were never unlucky enough to be their prisoner. There were governments that "disappeared" people -- snatched them off the street and put them without charges in secret prisons where nobody could find them. There were countries that threatened journalists with physical harm.

As an American in those days, I felt that I traveled with a kind of white flag. We were different. The world knew it. We might have allies in the Middle East or Latin America who used such horrifying methods. But these were techniques that Americans would never, ever use -- or even joke about. That was our seed corn -- the fact that we were different.

The United States must begin to replenish this stock of support for America in the world. I would love to see the Bush administration take the lead, but its officials seem not to understand the problem. Even if they turned course, much of the world wouldn't believe them. Sadly, when President Bush eloquently evokes our values, the world seems to tune out. So this task falls instead to the American public. It's a job that involves traveling, sharing, living our values, encouraging our children to learn foreign languages and work and study abroad. In short, it means giving something back to the world.

We must stop behaving as if we are in a permanent state of war, in which any practice is justified by the exigencies of the moment. That's my biggest problem with Vice President Cheney's anything-goes jeremiads against terrorism. They suggest we will always be at war, and so it doesn't matter what the world thinks of our behavior. That's a dangerously mistaken view. We are in a long war but not an endless one, and we need to begin rebuilding the bridges to normal life.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving each year, the Wall Street Journal republishes twin editorials that evoke America's special gifts: "The Desolate Wilderness" and "And the Fair Land." They describe the pilgrims' fears as they departed Europe in 1620, and the measureless bounty they and their descendants found in the new land. The spirit we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day is our most powerful national asset. We need to put America's riches back on the table and share them with the world, humbly and gratefully.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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