AHMED: Will America fail the world?

It’s election night 2012, and I’m fidgeting in my seat at the Yale Daily News building. I’m supposed to help communicate with our reporters in Chicago and Boston. Instead I refresh The New York Times interactive graphic showing how many paths President Obama has to victory. I’m soothed, briefly. Then I head to Twitter to check if any of the 300-odd political reporters, operatives or outlets I follow have called another state. Not yet, but we’re tantalizingly close, and my adrenaline is back.

For months, I’d been preparing for my first chance to be in the U.S. during a presidential election. I read — extensively, obsessively — and found a summer job at a liberal think tank in Washington. I checked my phone constantly: My Politico app and Twitter feed became faithful friends. Second by second, they told me about tiny political developments. I needed every detail.

I’d never followed an election back home in Pakistan this way. For most of my adult life, we had a military dictator.

Come election night, I yelled out updates to the newsroom every few minutes. I cheered. When it became clear Florida was going blue, I teared up. I lost my voice, but I kept up the frenzied chatter till 4 a.m.

Now, I’m fixated on the government shutdown and the risk that the U.S. will default on its loans. Here’s another fight I feel personally invested in. I am sickened by the handful of Republican legislators staging this drama, and I’m worried that they don’t know how seriously they are damaging their country’s standing — and what it stands for — in the world.

I have a Pakistani friend at Yale who thinks I’m wasting my time on day-to-day American politics. Worse, she adds, I am forsaking my own country: Can I name as many Pakistani senators as I can American ones?

My interest in American politics is not a betrayal of Pakistan. I’m gauging what makes this country work so I can try to fix my own. Right now, I can find deeper analyses of Washington’s inner workings than anything sources can give me on Islamabad.

My American friends think I’m strange for knowing more about their new Federal Reserve chairwoman than they do. I see their political system differently. I’ll always be annoyed when they blindly buy American exceptionalism and use “we” to talk about U.S. actions in the world, failing to separate self from state. I want them to look at the political scene as I do, like a keen but detached observer. But I know they aren’t just observers — they are participants in and products of the system.

I have a different sense of why this country’s politics matter. To me, what counts is America as an example for other nations. The liberal principles in the Constitution give it a pretty great foundation. I so want this system, with its flaws and inequality and Citizens United and God-why-isn’t-there-some-filibuster-reform, to be a functioning democracy, because I think the world needs its superpower to be one.

What’s at stake in Washington’s battles isn’t just the functioning of this government or the next global economic shock. I hope Congress can see that as it turns this nation into a laughingstock worldwide, it is undermining international supporters of the American experiment in rights and freedoms.

Some retrograde Republicans say things about rape, labor and Ayn Rand that make me want to scream. They’re about to push America off a scary precipice with the default. But take it from a foreigner: They aren’t as terrifying as some of the people outside this country who can’t wait for the U.S. to fail. They’re watching, just like I am, ready to label America a bad example. “They” means Taliban recruiters back home who mock American misadventures in the Middle East and Vladimir Putin using U.S.-friendly rhetoric in a New York Times op-ed as his security forces hound journalists. They’re glad that Washington has become its own worst enemy. Now, they can set their own terrifying examples.

Earlier this week, I was working on a group project about U.S.-China relations. Three of us were international students, and one was American. We wanted the brief to be pragmatic, with few references to America as “we” or assumptions of inherent superiority.

Still, the American member of our team felt we needed a final rhetorical flourish. She added a quote from Lincoln. The other internationals whispered, “typical American.” I read the quote and smiled. Abe was on point. One hundred and fifty-one years ago, addressing the same body that today threatens to shatter confidence in this nation’s promises, Lincoln told America and the world that he would not back down. “We shall,” he proclaimed, “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.” Today’s American leaders owe the world the same promise.

Akbar Ahmed is a senior in Davenport College and a former arts & living editor for the News. Contact him at akbar.ahmed@yale.edu.

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