Abraham Lincoln once said, “Stand with anybody that stands right, stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong.” I’ve always agreed with that, especially when it comes to praising or criticizing our Commander in Chief. I have been on record both praising and criticizing Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. This week, President Obama and our intelligence community and armed forces deserve great praise — for their wisdom, their bravery, and their excellence in executing a plan to take bin Laden out.
Having achieved this victory over bin Laden, himself, however, does not mean we are anywhere near the end of the war. Indeed, I hope it will be seen and taken as a new beginning, a new seriousness in it. Terrorism does not end with the death of charismatic leaders, and it often increases. But whatever the fate of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the A-Team of terrorism is still Hezbollah — and it is as strong as ever.
Not only should bin Laden’s death occasion a new, national, focus on our war, it should give us cause to think about how we got to him, namely, through good intelligence, gleaned from interrogation policies that had long been blamed as a problem rather than a solution.
But now, with bin Laden gone, there is still a lot of work to do, and a lot more we need to get right. In too many places, we have let allies across the world down, and we have given enemies cause to doubt our resolve. Much of this stems from a political leadership that has serious and systemic doubts about America’s role in the world and the purpose of our moral authority in it.
“Leading from behind” is the phrase one of the president’s own advisers recently used to describe the president’s foreign-policy approach. It couldn’t be more apt. It’s an approach that views America not as an exceptional leader but, rather, as just one more country in the sea of nations, not intrinsically better or worse than any other nation, not intrinsically better prepared to lead than any other nation. It is an abdication.
The tragedy and danger of this is that we are abdicating our role and authority at exactly the wrong time, just when the need for it has never been more important.
Just now we need to be reminded of what has made us a role model to others and what has made us so great in the past. There are essentially four fundamentally American contributions to the world that define not only how we have organized our government but how we have organized our lives:
First, free markets that are rooted in excellence, hard work, and innovation.
Second, religious pluralism where people of faith have the right to pursue their beliefs and not be abused by either their government or a majority. This is the only ground upon which we can truly live in peace with our differences and also advance the moral teachings which are essential for freedom to thrive.
Third, generosity and humanitarianism. America has a uniquely robust civil society, as observed almost 200 years ago by Alexis de Toqueville. This is how we primarily “love our neighbor.” We are generous with our time and our treasure.
And finally, a system of governance that promotes human flourishing, seeks the common good and maximizes personal liberty. Rule of law, checks and balances, separation of church and state, subsidiarity, and federalism. Our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin, and that no one person or institution should have the opportunity to consolidate power, lest the freedom of others be taken away.
By not promoting these uniquely American virtues, we have let down not only ourselves, but our allies and would-be allies.
Last year, visiting the United States, Lech Walesa put it this way:
The United States is the only superpower. Today they lead the world. Nobody has doubts about it militarily. They also lead economically but they’re getting weak. But they don’t lead morally and politically anymore. The world has no leadership. The United States was always the last resort and hope for all other nations. There was the hope, whenever something was going wrong, one could count on the United States. Today, we have lost that hope.
This is a terrible but, I fear, terribly true indictment of what was once known as “the last best hope of earth.”
I, however, am an optimist about America’s potential to again lead the world. By reclaiming our legacy of liberty I know we can make ourselves more secure and help the rest of the world become more stable and free. Let me suggest a ten-point plan to reverse our course, restore our greatness, and reestablish America’s standing in the world.#more#
First, we need to begin by seeing the world the way it truly is. We need to see evil for what it is, and confront it; and we need to see decency for what it is and nurture it.
Now is the time not only to be increasing our military preparedness but to finish the task of a comprehensive missile-defense system. While we are at it, we should restore our missile-defense commitments to Poland and the Czech Republic.
Second, we need to understand we are in a war, a hot war as well as a war of ideas. Failing to define our foes lest we be politically incorrect does not dissuade them from seeking our destruction. They know who they are and tell us, and they construe our efforts to obscure reality as signs of weakness and irresolution. Such behavior causes despair among our allies and confusion here at home.
Third, we need a reinvigorated human-intelligence apparatus in the Middle East so we can better understand who and where are enemies are and then identify opportunities to counteract them and support allies and would-be allies.
Fourth, we need to change our information operations abroad to promote our core values of freedom, equality, and democracy — just as we did with the Soviet Empire in the 1980s.
Fifth, we must cease our verbal, moral, and diplomatic equivalence as between good and evil. Syria does not deserve an ambassador; its protesters deserve support; Israeli housing starts should not be put on the same moral plane as Hamas terror attacks; and China should be challenged on religious liberty rather than be given a veto on the human-rights activists we wish support.
Sixth, having supported popular sovereignty abroad, we have erred in failing to sufficiently support the conditions of liberty and the institutions necessary for a successful democracy. Too often we have acted as if liberty’s first order of business is a vote. Elections should be a consummation and not a commencement to democratic processes.
Seventh, we need to keep and expand our commitment to humanitarian aid, especially in Africa. China and Islam are competing for the hearts and minds of much of Africa, and we cannot turn our back from the investment and commitments we have made. I helped lead many of our efforts to address third-world debt and the global AIDS crisis, and our investments have paid off.
Eighth, we must stand by Israel, especially at a time when it appears increasingly to be standing alone. The recent dislocation of the old order in the Middle East will usher in a new one , and anti-Israeli elements are working overtime to take advantage of the opportunity.
Ninth, the tradition of speaking up and out about prisoners of conscience and dissidents in prison, never mind American hostages, from the Middle East to Asia, needs to be restored. When President Reagan instituted the policy of reminding the world and America that there were others in jails because of their beliefs it not only reminded us of our blessings, it gave dissidents a sense of hope, and the knowledge that someone cared about them, that a great country was on their side.
Finally, we need to have a national effort to restore the teaching of American history in our nation’s schools. It is our children’s worst subject — they simply do not know their own story and thus when they are told ours is a history of aggression and immorality, they have no counter-narrative to refute it. It is worth remembering that Ronald Reagan’s final wish in his farewell address was to ask America to instill in our youth a renewed “informed patriotism.” Unfortunately, we ignored this lesson, and we are reaping the consequences.
I truly do believe we are “the last best hope of earth,” but the “hope” — and, for that matter, the “change” — we have seen over the last two and a half years has been illusory. From the Middle East to Asia to right in our backyard of Latin America, we have been weak where we should have been strong and we have been appeasing of evil where we should have been confronting and challenging it.
If we do not reverse course soon, we truly will have something to apologize for.
— Rick Santorum served as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. The above is adapted from a speech delivered at the National Press Club on April 28 and has been updated in light of Osama bin Laden’s death.