My mother and father did not come to New Haven this weekend. That’s fine, I love them for reasons bigger than Yale Parents’ Weekend. They taught me that life is sacred, that liberty is great, and that America is good.
Almost 16 years ago to the day, my mother dragged my brothers and me to a human rights rally at the Soviet mission to the United Nations. As Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met at Reykjavik, Iceland on Oct. 12, 1986, we gathered on the East Side to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to let its Jewish population practice their religion or return to their homeland. It was one example of the Soviet Union’s contempt for individual rights; our broader purpose was to speak out against the essential wickedness of the Communist regime.
The President heard us. At Reykjavik, Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, presented the Soviets with a list of 11,000 Jewish prisoners of conscience. It was one of their many principled acts. On one occasion, Shultz, an Episcopalian, organized a Passover seder — illegal in the Soviet Union — for dissidents at the American ambassador’s residence in Moscow. Moreover, Reagan and Shultz began every meeting with Soviet officials with a plea on behalf of the oppressed.
But they knew the Soviets would not stop terrorizing its citizens because the United States wanted them to or because international treaties demanded it. Dictators do not respect human rights because they derive their power from tyranny, not the consent of the governed; free of internal constraints, nothing moderates their actions abroad. The Reagan administration understood the enduring importance of power in stopping aggression, and thus rebuilt our armed forces and resisted the Soviets across the globe.
Today we could assemble in New York for the same reasons we did in 1986: to protest the trampling of rights by a police state, to support an American president confronting a dangerous tyranny, and to declare ourselves the liberal party. Today’s protests are different from the one my mother brought me to 16 years ago. The Glenda Gilmores are more likely found protesting at the U.S. mission than the Iraqi one; others do not believe in protesting at all, trusting international organizations to thwart aggression.
Far from an abdication of democratic principles, President Bush’s national security doctrine is Truman, Kennedy and Reagan renewed. It is moral realism — a synthesis of power and principle, based on permanent truths, that defends and, when possible, advances human liberty around the world. This philosophy draws from the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian, who preached idealism without illusions and realism with conscience.
It was this moral realism that guided Reagan at Reykjavik. “Gorbachev tried to limit our discussion to arms control,” Reagan later wrote, “but I led off by raising again the Soviet Union’s refusal to let its citizens emigrate because of their religion.” Still more idealistic was Reagan’s suggestion at Reykjavik to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
But when Gorbachev made any agreement dependent on the United States curtailing vital defense systems, Reagan, refusing to jeopardize our future, walked out of the room. The crowd in New York — some Republicans, but mostly Democrats — supported President Reagan because we knew liberty was threatened, and aggression likely, without American power and the willingness to use it.
This power is the only thing that can stop Saddam Hussein. He is a dictator with a penchant for ruthlessness and expansionism, a hatred for America and a hunger for weapons. He learned well from his Soviet backers. The difference is that the Soviet Union had the power to annihilate us; Saddam does not — yet.
If we opt out, the future will be determined by the most brutal, because while the United Nations may support disarming Iraq and changing its regime, only American power can make it happen. Can we subjugate our security and our principles to police states, such as China and Syria, both members of the U.N. Security Council?
Our national interest and our ideals are, if not always one, usually complimentary. In World War II the U.S. military defeated Nazism and liberated death camps. In the Cold War we defeated the Soviet Union and protected western Europe from totalitarianism. Now, we can defeat Saddam Hussein, liberate Iraq from his tyranny, and protect the American people.
My mother taught me to defend human rights. By leading the United States to our unique role in human events, President Bush is teaching us the same thing.
Davi J. Bernstein is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.