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Columns

May 28, 2011

It's OK to love an imperfect USA

I've been paying pretty close attention for more years than I'd like to admit, but I'd never heard anything quite like it.

On Tuesday, before a rapturous joint session of Congress, the leader of a foreign nation actually said "thank you" to America.

"Providence entrusted the United States to be the guardian of liberty," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "All peoples who cherish freedom owe a profound debt of gratitude to your great nation."

This may seem a bit unusual coming from someone who leans a bit to the political left and has no illusions about his nation's imperfections, but I really enjoyed hearing that.

It's almost always a thankless task to be the world's only superpower and possess its largest economy, and here someone was saying "thank you."

I mean, most of the time, if folks from other nations aren't actually burning our flag, they're calling us imperialists or warmongers or chanting "death to America."

Not that on occasion we haven't actually been imperialists, warmongers and unwelcome meddlers in other countries' affairs. But we do plenty of good stuff, too, and I can't really recall any country's leader just standing up and saying "thank you" before Netanyahu did it.

The Filipinos after Douglas MacArthur returned? The Kuwaitis after we kicked Saddam Hussein out of their country? Europeans _ but probably not the French _ after we helped liberate them from the Nazis and kicked in with the Marshall Plan?

Maybe, but it was obvious Tuesday that Congress really appreciated being thanked.

It's important to note on this Memorial Day Weekend that Democrats as well as Republicans rose to their feet and cheered lustily when Netanyahu praised their country.

For some reason, progressives have permitted conservatives to shanghai the whole concept of U.S. patriotism. The political heirs of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy have allowed ourselves to be marginalized when it comes to acknowledging that we love our nation.

The "America, love it or leave it" crowd has always had the wrong kind of patriotism, caring far more about the flag than what it represents, and sacrificing wisdom and nuance for simplistic bumper-sticker slogans.

All this "American Exceptionalism" stuff that Republican presidential candidates are spouting is just exceptional nonsense.

If another country has a better health care system or educates its kids better than we do, it's exceptionally stupid to stubbornly, chauvinistically go on doing things wrong.

It's not the least bit patriotic to insist that our country is perfect and has always been perfect, and if anyone disagrees, he can just go back where he came from.

For instance, there is nothing un-American about acknowledging that we have not always been "the good guys."

A young second lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant called our war with Mexico "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory."

The Spanish-American War is also an example of an American land-grab, taking territory from a weaker nation just because we could.

Our CIA has helped overthrow legitimate Central and South American governments along with one or two in the Middle East.

The Alien and Sedition Act, slavery, suspension of habeas corpus, internment of Japanese-Americans, McCarthyism and other scratches upon the nation's escutcheon are nothing to be proud of, but that doesn't mean we cannot take pride in our imperfect country.

We're the most generous nation in the world when it comes to humanitarian aid, and we are the main reason why repressive communist regimes didn't dominate the planet.

But one thing stands out in particular.

If we figure that it was inevitable that some nation was going to discover the atom bomb, the people of Earth caught an enormous break when it turned out to be the United States.

We used atomic weapons to end a war, not for worldwide domination. The first nation with the bomb could have ruled the entire planet. We chose not to, and that _ and not some silly jingoism _ makes us exceptional.

Memorial Day acknowledges the many thousands of American service people who gave their lives fighting for freedom rather than territory.

In the annals of history that's pretty darned exceptional, too.

—¦ Thank you for ensuring that the flame of freedom burns bright throughout the world," said Netanyahu.

Hey, you're welcome.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.

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