Reflections on Security, Democracy and Community

President Obama is in Russia trying to reduce our nuclear arsenal and once again we hear that he is naïve

President Obama is in Russia trying to reduce our nuclear arsenal and once again we hear that he is naïve and is out to endanger our security. Let’s step back and think about this for a moment and review the fundamentals. What makes us safer and more secure?
July 4th passed and after the rocket’s red glare and the fireworks (thankfully not bombs) finished bursting in air, our flag and our nation remained safe and secure. Here on the West End of Long Beach, New York, flags were everywhere this past weekend. This is a patriotic small city, with plenty of public participation in local politics, and a town, like New York City that came back from the depths of near ruin in the 1970’s.  Part of what makes these places work is our sense of ownership of our town, state and nation. When that sense of ownership and pride is present- communities thrive and our nation works. Democracy is a central ingredient of our quality of life and our prosperity. I know this is a strange time to be writing about prosperity, but despite the difficult time our economy is going through, our families, communities, businesses and democracy remain hard at work. Our security in a very real way is built on our democracy.

The media thrives on bad news and conflict, and there is no shortage of those things these days. People are suffering. But crises and tough times motivate heroism and selflessness too. In Iran, we see the hunger for self determination creating a movement that keeps changing its shape and form, but persists nonetheless. We are learning that the Iranian people and the regime that rules over them are not one and the same. Here in America, people are responding to the economic crisis by digging into their own pockets and savings to help neighbors and families in need.

In the modern world what unites us is this hunger for a safe haven where it is possible for the individual to achieve great things and where we can raise a family where our children have the chance to live up to their potential.  This hunger is what brings people into the streets of Tehran and was the force that led our founders to fight a war for independence. In this country these values shape the common ground we saw from time to time in the Presidential campaigns of John Mc Cain and Barack Obama. Despite the certainty claimed by our political rhetoric, it is not clear how we accomplish freedom and security in this world of imperfect human beings .

Walking on the beach among friends and families this July 4th, I couldn’t help but believe that the great majority of Americans have found a safe haven.  While too many Americans do without, and too many people around the world are without hope, the American dream of community and freedom endures.  Many continue to seek it. You see it in many places and in many forms. Early in the morning in Long Beach, you can watch dozens of teenage lifeguards train in a set of coordinated lifesaving exercises.  Like clock work they race into place and practice pulling a “drowning” swimmer back to shore.  Then only five hours later you see the same actions, only with greater intensity as a rip tide pulls two swimmers away from the beach.  If you think our country is falling apart, know that the spirit of public service is strong in our military, our police and fire departments, as well as in Americorps, the Peace Corps, and on the sands of Long Beach New York. Our ability to be free as individuals is built on a foundation of community.  Just like those teenage lifeguards carrying a line of rope  to those drowning in the sea, our community provides a lifeline for individuals whose life or security is threatened.

These days, there is a fair amount of consensus about what needs to be done when we see someone drowning. Economic and political life is a little more complicated, but there is actually more agreement than the cable news channels would like to admit. It was the Bush Administration that started the financial bailout in the fall of 2008. Right wing pundits may call President Obama a socialist, but he did not begin the expansion of government’s role in the banking industry- that was a policy he inherited. Similarly, it now seems clear that the Bush Administration was moving away from their initial pro-torture stance, as they had second thoughts about the wisdom and legality of their actions. And of course, we now see that while the Obama Administration has banned torture, it is struggling to find a place to imprison captured terrorists- the same dilemma faced by their predecessors. Our values as a nation, and the President’s role as a global and national leader, push our Presidents to confront the same set of issues, from the same institutional vantage point. Even two Presidents as different as Bush and Obama end up seeing some issues through the same lens.

While our polarized politics seems committed to maintaining the veneer of unbridgeable differences, the reality of our common interest continues to reassert itself. This does not mean that our views are identical and there are not serious differences in how we might achieve our goals. Globally, there are clear distinctions in values and priorities. Within the United States these distinctions are far less pronounced, but real.  While President Obama seems to recognize these distinctions, he is, I believe correctly, focused on trying to find and build on the common ground that we share. He is trying to do this at home and abroad. In a complex, interconnected and dangerous world, this effort at communication and understanding is a welcome change.

Which brings us back to this issue of security.  President Obama is not considering dismantling or reducing our military. He is, like his predecessor, trying to figure out how to make it more effective. Unlike his predecessor he seems to have more interest in the other tools of national interest: diplomacy, economics, and communication. If we assume that we have nothing in common with the nations we oppose, these other tools are useless. If, however, we find out, as we have,  that the Iranian people are actually more opposed to their President than we are, then maybe our security can be served by building on those values we share, rather than those we do not.  

Reflections on Security, Democracy and Community