No one who watched the exhilaration and exuberance of Iraqis facing down the threat of bullets in order to cast their ballots can fail to have been moved. And for those who were actually in Iraq to witness this firsthand, battle-hardened and cynical journalists included, it must have been bliss indeed to be alive at dawn Jan. 30 and relief to be still alive at dusk.

Ironically, the enthusiasm and courage with which ordinary people seized their opportunity to choose their own leaders is a repudiation of central parts of American foreign policy.

It is also a paradoxical explanation for the intensity of much anti-American sentiment. For it is a forceful reminder of just how strong the passion for freedom is, how strong the loathing for regimes and rulers who brutalize their own people is, and how bitter the feelings are toward outside powers who prefer to prop up friendly dictators rather than team up to topple them. The balance sheet of American support for, and opposition to, dictatorships has usually been negative for any given year since the end of World War II.

In pursuing such short-term tactics, U.S. governments have betrayed not just the people yearning to overthrow their local tyrants, but also their own ideals. Many Americans fail to grasp the power of the metaphor of the shining lights of the city on the hill, the hypnotic pull of the ringing American declaration of independence, the stirring inspiration of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863). These are not just American treasures; they are the common heritage of mankind.

For India, the speech that most closely matches Gettysburg is Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s address to the nation on Aug. 14, 1947, when the country became independent. At the stroke of midnight, when the world slept, he proclaimed an ancient nation awoke to freedom, keeping its tryst with destiny. The same festive atmosphere marked South Africa’s liberation from apartheid; the same carnival-like celebration of freedoms has accompanied the holding of popular elections following the fall of every dictator of left and right.

Yet it is difficult to recall instances when, faced with a choice between a people rising in revolt and an oppressive but U.S.-friendly regime, Washington actually sided with the people. The world today would have been poorer and sadder for many people if America had not helped to bring about an end to their tormentors, from Poland to Georgia and Ukraine. Nor can Washington fairly be asked to assume the burden of changing history for the better in all places all alone.

But the world is also poorer and sadder for many people because Washington so often compromised its ideals for the sake of stable relations with undemocratic regimes. Their people, including Mideast Arabs and Muslims, seek exactly what Americans take for granted: political freedoms, civil liberties, material prosperity, the right to hold on to legitimately acquired property and wealth, and the accountability of rulers to the rule of law. They are bewildered and embittered when Washington turns its face away from them so as not to antagonize friendly regimes or important allies.

The gap between the lofty, soaring rhetoric of liberty (mentioned 15 times) and freedom (27 times) in U.S. President George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech Jan. 20 and the reality of his administration’s ties to authoritarian regimes is pronounced. In an especially eloquent passage, the president said:

“We have seen our vulnerability — and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny — prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder — violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”

Just so. And yet the passage is at odds with the actual record of the administration in its first term.

Similarly, in the light of the known treatment of prisoners in U.S. military custody from Afghanistan and Guantanamo to Iraq, what is one to make of the president’s boast that “from the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth”? Or that “freedom, by its nature, must be sustained by the rule of law”?

And dare Palestinians put faith in the promise that “We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right”?

If all this marks an implicit acknowledgment of mistakes made in the first and a promise to do better in the second four years, then U.S. precepts and practice may yet converge.

The United Nations too has been guilty of compromising core values, perhaps even more so than the United States. On some issues like racial equality and apartheid, the U.N. was well ahead of Washington in leading the good international fight. But overall, no objective historian of the past 60 years could credibly claim that victory in the great battles for defeating the evil of communism, or promoting the onward march of human rights and freedoms, was won by the world body rather than America.

In 1993, the people of Cambodia were given the chance to vote under U.N. supervision. Like terrorists in Iraq this year, the dreaded and barbaric Khmer Rouge tried to intimidate the people against voting. Instead the Cambodians showed great courage in voting in large numbers under U.N.-supervised elections. There is an argument to be made that the U.N. connived in negating the verdict at the polls because of the dominant power of the ruling regime in Cambodia, betrayed the people and undermined whatever prospect the tiny nation might have had for a democratic future within a foreseeable time frame.

Moral clarity and backbone, essential for courage of convictions, do not sit easily alongside institutional timidity and instinctive risk-aversion. But for the international organization as for the sole superpower, there is a price to be paid in the long run for expedient decisions in the short term.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.