Distant Shores

By

Give the Bush administration a B. Its initial reaction to the
tsunami was awful: A pathetic $15 million in aid and four days of
presidential silence while the death toll mounted. But, when the
pressure grew strong enough, the Bushies--as they sometimes do
(remember the Homeland Security Department and the 9/11
Commission)--reversed course and did the right thing. And, since
then, America's humanitarian and symbolic response has been good.More disturbing, and more revealing, has been the response of the
conservative intelligentsia. On December 28, in its first editorial
on the catastrophe, The Wall Street Journal attacked liberals for
politicizing the event. "One might think that a disaster of this
scale would transcend normal national or political considerations,"
its editors wrote. "But in the world of environmental zealotry,
even an event such as this is seen as an opportunity to press the
agenda." The next day, the Journal, never one to use tragedy to
"press the agenda," published an editorial titled "death by
environmentalist," which blamed environmentalists for exacerbating
the threat of malaria in tsunami-stricken areas. Two days later,
the Journal used the tsunami to attack the United Nations, Western
Europe, and taxes, (and, in its web edition, to defend America's
military presence in Asia).

The Journal was symptomatic. In general, the right has been fairly
quiet about the tsunami. (As of this writing, The Weekly Standard's
website had yet to devote a single article to the topic. A Nexis
search of "tsunami" as The New Republic went to press revealed 417
discussions on CNN and a mere 116 on Fox.) But, even when they have
written about it, conservatives have focused (with notable
exceptions, such as Michael Fumento's article on National Review
Online) on the U.S. response. On January 3 alone, National Review
Online devoted three articles to rebutting charges that the Bush
administration had been "stingy." On Fox's flagship Sunday show,
the panel discussion focused on-- you guessed it--whether President
Bush had done enough.

Almost entirely absent from conservative commentary has been any
discussion of how the tsunami will affect South and Southeast Asia.
Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is emerging
from decades of military rule. Now its military is overseeing
disaster relief in the very region where, a month ago, it was
putting down an armed rebellion. In the months before the tsunami,
Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand had been threatening to spiral
out of control. Sri Lanka has a religiously and ethnically based
civil war as well. For all three fragile democracies, the tsunami's
social and political consequences will likely prove profound. The
newspapers have devoted considerable space to those consequences.
Why don't conservatives seem to care?

Because the tsunami has uncovered a dirty little secret about the
right today: Conservatives are fascinated by American power, but
they are not all that interested in the world. In the 1990s,
observers frequently noted the Republican Congress's indifference
to the world beyond U.S. shores. In 1998, then-House Majority
Leader Dick Armey infamously said that "I've been to Europe once. I
don't have to go again." When Republican Representative Sonny
Callahan assumed the chairmanship of the House Appropriations
Subcommittee on Foreign Operations in 1995, he noted that he had
never voted for a foreign aid bill. He proceeded to oppose funding
the Wye River Accord between Israel and the Palestinians, quipping,
according to The Washington Post's Robert G. Kaiser, that "every
time somebody walks in the White House with a turban on his head
... the president says, 'Let me give you a little bit of money.'"
In 1999, John McCain worried about the "growing isolationism in the
Republican Party."

Conventional wisdom holds that all this has changed since September
11. And, in a sense, the right has been transformed--conservatives
have grown extremely interested in using the U.S. military to stop
terrorism and nuclear proliferation. But that's not the same as
becoming interested in the world. True internationalism means
taking an interest in events overseas even when they don't bear
directly on the war on terrorism; when they are not easily amenable
to American power. It means being interested in the world, at least
partly, merely because we live in it. By that standard, the
isolationism of the '90s remains alive and well. Even in the best
conservative publications, there is little reporting from abroad,
and most of what there is involves the war on terrorism. A while
back, National Review Online, the flagship website of the U. S.
right, published a blog discussion about the African leaders with
the strangest names, as if to say, "Who could possibly care?"

The tsunami is an almost perfect case study in conservative
isolationism. It is a massive event in the recent history of the
world. And yet it is a trivial event in the history of American
power. None of the devastated countries threaten the United States;
none are staging grounds for a conflict between the United States
and a foreign power; the tragedy offers no role for the U.S.
military except in delivering humanitarian supplies. And so
conservatives feel compassion, as all decent people do. But,
politically, they aren't that interested. Why should they be? Sri
Lanka's fate has little bearing on U.S. national interests.

But the irony is that defeating Islamist terrorism requires
convincing people around the world that the United States does not
act merely out of narrow national interest. To win over global
hearts and minds, the United States must show Muslims, and others,
that we are benevolent--that we want a better world for them; that
we are not just in it for empire and oil. That means financial
generosity--giving money for economic and social development rather
than only military assistance. But it also means what might be
called intellectual generosity--a genuine curiosity about the rest
of the world, even when our safety is not directly threatened, even
when the dramas aren't primarily about us.

It is that curiosity that is so profoundly absent from Bush, who
tries to see as little as possible of the countries he visits.
(When Bill Clinton went to Africa in 1998, he visited six countries
in eleven days; when Bush went in 2003, he visited five countries
in five days.) And which is absent from his administration more
generally, which invaded Iraq yet scorned the advice of those
specialists who knew the country best. Today's conservatives want
to dominate and transform the world--as long as they don't have to
learn too much about it in the process.

By Peter Beinart

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