Sometimes, when you catch a glimpse of yourself through the eyes of friends, the perspective is sobering.
Earlier this week, I sat down to talk with more than 20 young men and women from nations ranging from China and Nigeria to Colombia and Egypt. They work in U.S. embassies in their native countries and are traveling the United States to learn something about their new employer. For about an hour, they pelted me with questions about the American media, the American public and, most of all, American attitudes toward the rest of the world.
I can't say how much they learned from my answers; I do know that I learned an awful lot from their questions. While they seemed to have a strong attraction to this country, or at least to the idealism and hope that America offers, it was undercut by a deep frustration approaching anger.
One question in particular struck home. I wasn't taking notes, but I'll try to paraphrase it:
"We watch the American government be friends with this dictator over here and support him, because he will give you the oil or minerals or something that you want," one person stood up to say. "But then with this other dictator over there, who is not so friendly and cooperative, you will start talking about democracy just so you can get rid of him. This is so hypocritical, to use democracy this way, like a weapon. Do Americans think that the world does not understand what it is you are doing?"
Boy, now how would you answer that one? As he knew and I knew, he's right. In the past, we have used talk of democracy not as a core American principle, but to justify and disguise attacks on leaders who dare to defy us. Even the Bush administration, with its push for what the president calls a "global democratic revolution," acknowledges the history but promises that those days have ended. The short version of its new pro-democracy policy is, "This time we really mean it."
But we don't. Our discussion took place Monday. That very day, 80-year-old Heidar Aliyev, the longtime ruler of Azerbaijan, was being buried in the capital city of Baku. A former KGB general who had run Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union, Aliyev had continued his harsh rule as dictator after the country became independent in 1993. His funeral was attended by his successor as president of Azerbaijan -- his 41-year-old son, Ilham Aliyev.
The younger Aliyev had been "elected" president in October with 80 percent of the vote in an election that international observers dismissed as a sham. Afterward, street protests were brutally suppressed, opposition figures tossed in prison and opposition press muzzled. And yet, shortly after the fake election, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Baku to congratulate Aliyev on his victory, express support and, according to Azerbaijani officials, to negotiate the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops on bases in Azerbaijan.
Why? Because Azerbaijan possesses enormous reserves of oil and natural gas, hosts a strategically critical oil pipeline and shares a border with Iran. It's a troubling echo of events that occurred 20 years ago this week, when Rumsfeld traveled to Baghdad to greet a man named Saddam Hussein.
Rumsfeld's 1983 visit came mere weeks after Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran, a crime against humanity that Rumsfeld was polite enough not to mention to Saddam. In 1984, after Saddam used nerve gas against the Iranians, the United States punished Iraq by restoring full diplomatic relations. In 1988, when Saddam used poison gas against his own people, U.S. officials at first tried to shift public blame to Iran, then squashed a Senate resolution condemning Saddam. A little while later, we gave Saddam $1 billion in agricultural credits.
That history is unfamiliar to most Americans, but the rest of the world knows it all too well. They know that when we finally moved against Saddam, it was not to advance democracy or human rights, but because it suited our national interests, just as today it suits us to back a dictator such as Aliyev. They know, because they watch what we do with the same intensity that you would watch a 600-pound tiger locked in the same room with you. They watch every move, and they remember.
That explains, I think, why Americans are so often surprised when other countries express resentment, distrust and even anger at U.S. policies. We look at ourselves in the mirror and see a decent citizen of the world, strong but fair and devoted to the cause of democracy. But increasingly, even our friends look at us in dismay at our capacity for self-delusion.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution