My Persian grandfather is a convert: He believes in America. Raised in Tehran in a relatively privileged household, he studied architecture and made a good living before he began to work for American development initiatives. These programs paid for him to do a one-year tour of America with his family. After spending 12 months visiting famous American landmarks, speaking to host families and interacting with American architects, he returned to Iran filled with good memories and favorable impressions. To this day, he believes in the mythos of America. Why else would he have been so proud of my admittance to Yale? Why else would he have chosen to settle in New York when he had a brother in Germany and a sister in Ethiopia?
I’m often reminded of my grandfather’s story when reading about our war on terrorism — the recent missile strikes on Somalia being the latest of many headlines that tug at this memory. Seen through the post-Cold War perspective that has guided the Bush administration, the struggle against terrorism appears to be a polar fight with clear enemies to be combated. Indeed, during the Cold War, tyranny and oppression had a very definite source within the Kremlin (not that our hands are entirely clean, but that is a story for another day).
Our strategy has consisted of targeting bad guys and going after them. Al Qaeda came out of Afghanistan? Go get’em. Saddam could supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? Go get’im, too. Iran has nukes and helps radicals in Shi’ah Iraq? You get the picture. Individuals and nations become targets should they diverge from our desired policy initiatives. Ironically, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq — a former enemy of Iran — shows this rhetoric can have the effect of making our perceived enemies cooperate.
In the years since 9/11, we have — and I don’t mean to belabor a well-known fact — alienated our potential allies. Tighter border restrictions on travel and on journalists have turned people previously inclined to support and defend us into our critics (see the blogosphere for examples of irate Europeans). Tighter borders and increasingly xenophobic rhetoric have estranged Latin Americans. All this done in the name of an elusive war on terror. While I understand that the military analogies mobilize nationalist sentiment, sometimes I feel like we are missing opportunities to make friends.
Rather than exclusively seeking to fight enemies, we should aid and assist nations and individuals who support justice and democracy. In this respect, we need to think of it as more than “winning the war of ideas.” Let’s avoid the war analogies altogether and recognize the degree to which our society bears testament to our highest ideals. Instead of shutting down our borders, we should open them to community leaders and opinion-shapers of those regions we want to influence. After all, America is the closest thing to America the world has. We should spend just as much energy finding potential allies within target areas as we do hunting down potential enemies. We would better serve our own interests by developing a wide-ranging network of friendly foreigners.
Luckily, developing such a network begins with concrete steps. Begin by allowing more immigrants into America, increasing funding for foreign students to study in America and ensuring that we actually do stand for democracy and justice as often as possible. That would mean shutting down the public-relations disaster that is Guantanamo Bay or proving to the world that it does provide justice (perhaps by instating some sort of habeas corpus). That would mean finding an ethical solution to illegal immigration — we have issued amnesties in the past. In the end, if we want to be the good guy, we have to act like the good guy, too. America can be the ethical leader we imagine it to be; I’m sure many people like my grandfather are just waiting to be convinced.
Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.