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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2003 / 9 Adar I 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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A worthy crusade for individual worth | The year I was born, the sworn enemies of the United States included Germany, Japan and Italy. Today they are allies, if not always close friends.

When I was a boy, our primary enemy was the Soviet Union, of which Russia was the dominant state. Today the Soviet Union has collapsed and Russia often is an ally and sometimes a friend.

When I was a young man, America sent troops to fight in Vietnam. Today Vietnam, while often in tension with our ideals and political goals, is only occasionally on our radar screen.

The shifting currents of global power and politics require us to remember that we have no permanent friends or allies. What we have, instead, are permanent values. Others in harmony with those values become our friends and allies. Opponents of those values become something else.

As we struggle now with Iraq and its pharaonic leader, Saddam Hussein, it's crucial to remember that. We must not imagine that Iraq can never be a friend or ally. In fact, if things go well, Iraq could become a beacon of democratic values and reform in the Arab world, which needs both desperately.

Iraq's current dismal state does not reflect its important history. After all, the fertile Tigris and Euphrates valley in this land historically known as Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of civilization. There the Sumerians developed cuneiform writing and created city states that were melded together into an empire. From there the Assyrians ruled an empire encompassing much of today's Middle East.

The constant shifting of geopolitical interests means we should keep open the possibility that any nation - no matter how dishonorably its leaders are behaving now - can become our friend and ally. And not just for pragmatic purposes, the way Saudi Arabia is our ally. Rather, nations can become our friends and allies when they adopt the democratic values that undergird who we are at our best.

We must acknowledge that America doesn't always live up to its ideals. We don't fail nearly as often as some people charge, but we do fail. And each time we do, we encourage others to call us hypocritical. We often seem arrogant, and the legitimate criticism we thus invite can get distorted into fantasy-based denunciations of us as the great Satan.

America is not a Satan of any kind. And our failure to be perfect does not diminish the universality of values we cherish and try to promote. That's why it's vital that we articulate these values clearly and hand them down from generation to generation.

The value most central to our civilization - the one from which others flow - is the inestimable worth of each individual. This idea is what author and political scientist Glenn Tinder calls the "spiritual center of Western politics." This value causes us to respect and protect individual rights and liberties. It says all people are equal before the law. It says it doesn't matter whether the person clinging to a capsized boat off our shore is rich or poor, it's worth sending out the Coast Guard.

It's clear that not all nations share that value. Those nations may be our temporary allies to achieve some mutual interest, but in the long run they cannot be our friends. And we are not true to this core value if we ignore it in our geopolitics.

The idea that the individual is exalted leads inevitably to other key values. One is the one-person, one-vote idea, which also embodies the idea that people can best govern themselves and should have the freedom to do so.

Indeed, most of the constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights stem from this core idea about human worth. Without that value, it doesn't make much sense to guarantee freedom of worship, a free press, freedom from searches and seizures and other freedoms.

The goal is to respect - and even celebrate - cultural differences but not to endorse governments and societies that violate the foundational values for which we stand. In Iraq and elsewhere now, we must promote those values because they can unleash the human spirit and because they are right.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved