There is an argument that the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth, that our democratic ideals are an inspiration to the world, that our power is great because we are morally right and just, that we are a benevolent giant, a city on a hill.
There is an argument that the United States of America is among the worst nations on earth, that our military and economic dominance are a threat and a burden to the world, that we preach democracy but promote tyranny, that we are a brutal giant, a city of filth.
The difficulty is that the United States is neither… and it is both.
Listen: the United States is a representative democracy — never perfect, and in constant need of improvement, yet for two hundred and thirty years it has held together and remained a republic, the rights secured constantly growing to match the rights promised. It has been an inspiration to the world, even when, as with Haiti, what is inspired has not always been to the US’s liking. It has met and mastered great evils, rid the world of horrors, and (for most of the people for most of the time) been a place of peace, liberty, and prosperity. This feat, however flawed, is a monumental achievement.
Listen: since even before its beginning the United States has invaded, occupied, conquered, or staged coups. It was born in a westward-running act of genocide, has exported despotism to scores of countries, and invaded dozens more, more than any other nation now extant on earth. Since the fall of our last real rival and the end of the Cold War we have staged three wars and two major interventions, and have bombed or assassinated in half a dozen more. As I write these words we have literally countless military bases around the world. These acts, however justified, remain dangerous, threatening aggressions.
Listen: once upon a time America put a man on the moon.
Listen: twice upon a time, America used nuclear bombs on inhabited cities.
The US has been both a model for the world to follow and a monster for it to fear. The one, in fact, has allowed the other. Had this country not been an inspiration for all humanity, it would long ago have been destroyed by all humanity, an eagle brought down by many sparrows, because if the US were not so inspiring, it would be terrifying. Rome endured and Persia endured and the United States has endured because life under their swords was and has been better than it was before; without that betterment the US would be not loved but dreaded, and eventually not accepted but destroyed.
If you are loved enough, those who love you will do anything for you. If you are feared enough, those who fear you will do anything to you. The United States has forever walked between the two, both loved and feared.
These past few months have retaught Americans an old lesson, if they — we — can learn it. Democracy, an idea the US restored to the world, now has the potential to flourish where once it was only a dream. But the obstacles to that dream now being removed were put there by the government of the United States, and by extension by us, the people who elected it. Mubarak was ours. The sultans are ours. Even mad Gadhaffi, our former foe, became a useful tool in our latest war. And in our culpability and guilt the United States can only faintly praise the triumph of our ideals because it means the end of our allies. If we spoke, in fact, our bloody past might have stained our encouragement — we could not even help with a word, because our words are suspect. Now America sees what happens when our two faces clash: the world rises up as the US taught against the those the US made, and when these peoples become free they say, “No more of you. We thank you for any good you have done us but we also remember your crimes against us. We no longer need you. We don’t want to become you. No more of you. Go away.”
Whatever example we have set is marred, now.
It is time for us, we the people of the United States, to pause. I think it is time for our country to withdraw. I think it is time for us to reflect and consider what we have been. Call home our soldiers, teach them to do more than control or kill. Dismantle our nukes, scrap our ships, ground our planes. Rein in our banks and conglomerates, check our urge for markets and wealth. Time to stop playing god. Time to diminish, and remain ourselves. Regain our goodness by relinquishing our power. Recover our blessings by renouncing our curse.
We have been a fire on the mountain, we have been both a beacon to steer by and a conflagration to flee from. We enlighten the world — and burn it. Let us instead become a candle, one candle among many, and see which way gives a greater light.