You will be judged

Zach Wiita

“You will be judged on what you build.”

It’s been more than a week since President Barack Obama assumed office, and lately I find that these words, paraphrased from his inaugural address in his first presidential interview, are staying with me the most. It’s a powerful statement that seems to stand in defiance of much of traditional political thinking. Whether you’re a member of a “loyal opposition” seeking to undermine policies you feel are destructive and immoral or the President of the United States, the fact remains that greatness does not originate from destruction, and the world’s heroes are not those who destroy. Greatness comes from building something that lasts.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, and it’s easy to become mired in the trap of opposition and forget the necessity of leadership.

An infamous example of this is the tale of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat. In September 2000, Sharon provoked a Palestinian riot in the course of campaigning to become Israeli prime minister, inflaming Palestinian feelings by visiting a holy site and riding his reputation as a hard-liner to political power. Arafat, earlier that year, had been handed a workable peace plan by the Clinton administration and Barak but was unable to make the transition from revolutionary to statesman.

Rather than risk his political dominance among the Palestinians, Arafat chose to reject the peace plan, ending the Camp David Summit of July 2000 in failure, delaying for years the rise of a Palestinian state and enflaming passions that would lead to the Second Intifada.

Barak had tried to retain both Israeli control of Palestinian airspace and the right to place troops in the proposed state of Palestine if a crisis were to develop, putting lie to the proposed state’s sovereignty. None of these men were willing to compromise or end the war in their own minds. Because there was no hope of peace in their own hearts, there was no hope of peace in their own lands – and there is no creation where there is no peace.

This, too, is why I think former President George W. Bush is unlikely to be well-remembered. Bush, to be frank, destroyed far more in his tenure in office than he created. Faced with the challenge of helping to build a new Afghanistan in partnership with the Afghan people, President Bush instead chose to divert American resources to the task of destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Faced with the task of rebuilding Iraq, the Bush administration found itself hamstrung by poor pre-war planning and a complete lack of understanding of Iraqi political culture. His verbal belligerence provoked Iran and North Korea, leading to North Korea joining the “Nuclear Club” and the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

President Bush often likes to compare himself to President Harry S. Truman, who also left office as a man deeply unpopular with the American people. What Bush forgets is that Truman presided over the rise of the Western Alliance, the establishment of the United Nations and the Breton Woods institutions that helped tie the free world together in the wake of World War II.

George W. Bush has built nothing comparable. He has, in fact, undermined the alliances Truman built, first by ignoring NATO’s show of solidarity with the United States after 9/11 by going at it alone in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, and then by ignoring general European opinion and the United Nations in the lead-up to Iraq.

The most President Bush can point to as a legacy of creation is vastly increased U.S. aid to Africa for HIV/AIDS treatments and prevention. Yet this pales in comparison to the things that Bush has destroyed.

This, then, is the task before President Obama: Faced with a world marked by leaders more wont to tear other societies down than build them up, Obama must reverse this trend. He has to revive old partnerships and create new ones, helping the nations of the world build their societies peacefully and freely. The fact that President Obama, in his interview two days ago with Dubai-based cable network Al Arabiya, said that the first step in formulating U.S. policy towards the Middle East will be to genuinely listen to what regional leaders have to say is hopeful.

“And so what I told (U.S. Envoy George Mitchell) is, start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating . and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved,” he said.

By starting the process as equal partners rather than imperious kings, the U.S. stands a good chance of helping to build the kinds of alliances and goodwill necessary to bring security to Israel and Palestine – and to end al-Qaida’s ability to recruit from among the Arab world.

It will be hard and it will be long, but this struggle – the struggle to build bridges of friendship rather than to destroy an axis of evil – is a worthy struggle. It is the struggle, ultimately, by which President Obama will be judged. As will we all.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theatre studies major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].