The Islamic State’s March attacks in Belgium reinforce Americans’ belief that we live in a dangerous world, perhaps the most dangerous ever. Thankfully, most of the horror bypasses the United States, which remains a global oasis.
Americans can help alleviate the ugliness elsewhere. But rarely can they remake other nations, at least not at a reasonable cost in lives and resources. Americans’ priority must remain safeguarding and uplifting the United States.
I recently visited the city of Erbil, Iraq. Briefly threatened by the Islamic State two summers ago, Erbil is the capital of largely autonomous Kurdistan. Today, the city operates without evident fear, though security remains heavy. The Kurdish people are spread throughout Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, and are the largest ethnic group without their own nation. They have suffered oppression and violence at the hands of all four states.
In Erbil, one government official spoke of fleeing his home with his family years ago as Saddam Hussein’s air force attacked from above. Hussein employed mustard gas against Kurdish civilians who opposed his brutal rule. The official’s father explained that they could count on no one else and should be prepared to die fighting. Many did.
Kurdistan remains largely separate from the Baghdad government and has become a sanctuary for others, especially religious minorities. I attended a training seminar on religious liberty organized by the group HardWired, headed by Tina Ramirez, who previously worked on Capitol Hill handling foreign policy and religious persecution. The meeting brought together people of all faiths to deepen their commitment to protecting the religious liberty of all.
Every group had suffered. Christians fled the Islamic State’s takeover of the Nineveh Plain. A Baha’i who lived close to Baghdad went to Turkey with her son. A Sunni judge got out of Mosul three days before the brutal ISIS takeover. Many in his family were not so lucky: the Islamic State detained his youngest brother for more than a year before beheading the 17-year-old. A Yazidi abandoned her home when her city was overrun by ISIS forces. Many people lost contact with friends or relatives left under Islamic State rule.
Even those who escape suffer. A church turned its grounds across the street from my hotel into a mini-refugee camp for 94 families. Homes went from tents to metal containers, but kitchens and bathrooms remain communal. People play soccer and volleyball in the common area, marking time while hoping to return home or find refuge abroad.
Even more people have been displaced by the Syrian conflict. The European migrant crisis is a result of millions fleeing their war-ravaged nation. Many have crossed into neighboring Turkey. Refugees make up an astonishing one-third of Lebanon’s population. Last summer, I visited Jordan’s Zaartari camp, home to some 80,000 people. Many residents have been there for years. Some, in a mix of frustration and desperation, return to Syria aflame.
Only today, decades into a widespread insurgency in eastern Burma, is there hope for the 50,000 residents of Mae La refugee camp, across the border in Thailand. For years, when I visited, children would tell stories of murdered parents, wrecked homes, and desperate flight across the Moei River. Few people could leave the camps and none could work legally.
Today, an uneasy peace has descended upon most of the land also known as Myanmar. In fact, it now may be freer politically than Thailand, which suffered a coup two years ago. Although the Burmese military retains much influence, it is yielding ground. In contrast, the Thai junta seems determined to hold on to power and to construct a faux democracy in which the generals will rule however the people vote.
In many other nations, the threat similarly is repression and persecution rather than conflict and war. Turkish journalists risk jail and ruin for criticizing the new sultan-wannabe, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A Christian minister’s wife lost a leg in a church bombing in Indonesia. Russians are arrested for demonstrating against the Putin government. Palestinian Christians are unable to worship in Jerusalem or to farm ancestral lands due to the Israeli occupation. Chinese students are angry over censorship and curious about the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Pervasive repression is evident in totalitarian systems, in which the state claims authority over almost every aspect of human life, including religious faith. North Korea, Eritrea — known as Africa’s North Korea — and Saudi Arabia come to mind. An accident of birth separates those with a future of freedom and opportunity from those who endure a modern form of serfdom.
Americans face many challenges, too, especially this political season. What believer in liberty could savor a presidential match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Or Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz? It’s enough for many of us to consider committing ritual seppuku.
Nevertheless, the United States remains largely invulnerable to foreign attack. Only a couple of nations could launch a nuclear assault, and they would be annihilated in return. None can challenge America conventionally: indeed, Washington spends so much on the military to enable it to attack others, not to protect the homeland. Yet, America’s prosperous and populous allies, like the Europeans, prefer to fund generous welfare states rather than potent defenses.
Horrific conflicts elsewhere appropriately tug at Americans’ heartstrings, but that is no reason to turn foreign tragedies into domestic tragedies. Terrorism remains America’s most serious security concern, but it does not threaten the nation’s existence, as did conflict during the Cold War. Less promiscuous intervention abroad is the surest means to limit such attacks at home.
America’s economic dream of a constantly improving future has lagged, but the United States is not alone in that regard. And the wounds are largely self-inflicted: foolish regulatory, spending, and tax policies that weaken Americans’ ability to compete in the world. It’s a lesson that even Europe has had painfully to learn.
No one should wish America’s political system on anyone else, yet a similar populist uprising is occurring in many European nations. It’s a problem born of frustration with bipartisan elites who rig the game for their own benefit. Who can blame people for believing that it really doesn’t matter who they vote for? There is a permanent national government that works most assiduously to ensure its permanence, irrespective of the wishes of those it governs.
The ongoing populist response is fraught with danger. Nevertheless, American supporters of liberty remain alert, constitutional protections persist, checks and balances abound, and for at least two decades, Washington pols have perfected their ability to block and frustrate their opponents. Despite fevered claims this political season, America remains far from a fascist dictatorship.
There is much in America about which to be concerned and even anguished. Yet, traveling the world reminds one just how special Americans remain. Rather than give up in despair, we should remember our blessings and redouble our efforts to reclaim the Founders’ revolutionary legacy. We don’t need to try to remake the world, as so many people seem to desire. Rather, we should concentrate on reviving America.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.
This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.