Today I sent the following to J.P. Avlon of the New York Sun, in response to his column Thursday entitled “Eagle Foreign Policy”:

Dear Mr. Avlon:

In your column Thursday, “Eagle Foreign Policy,” you argue that by appeasing dictators we make it appear that “America is just another great power motivated solely by self-interest.” Yet your whole argument is that it’s not in our self-interest to appease dictators. So which one is it?

Is it in our self-interest to support pro-freedom forces? Isn’t that what we would do if we were “a great power motivated solely by self-interest”? By your argument, then, wouldn’t we be hurting our image abroad by doing so?

Too many people thoughtlessly blame all the world’s evils on the pursuit of self-interest. But the terrorists who attacked us did not do so for any conceivable selfish reason. They did not want to live; they wanted us to die. In the past century, both fascism and communism denounced self-interest as the ultimate evil, and aimed to create a society based on altruism. Yet both slaughtered human beings in numbers unprecedented in human history.

Meanwhile, the changes that have improved life immeasurably for billions of people across the world–rail transport, electricity, the automobile, air travel, refrigeration, the computer–these and many more are the products of self-interest. Where is the Mother Theresa who could hold a candle to the life-giving power of Edison, Ford, or Bill Gates?

The generally accepted idea of self interest as involving sacrificing others to one’s aims is incoherent and needs to be completely rethought; otherwise, we will face nothing but ethical false alternatives. Case in point: Later in your column, you quote George W. Bush: “We’ve got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom… If we are an arrogant nation, they’ll view us in that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.”

George Bush is wrong. The only “humility” that will satisfy our critics is our total abdication of leadership, for to them any projection of strength or assertiveness by a world power is selfish and arrogant. To try to win respect by catering to such a viewpoint is to sacrifice our interests and our security.

But arrogance vs. humility is a false alternative–and until we reject these kinds of stale philosophical commonplaces we are going to be led around by the nose, following those who would use such ideas to manipulate us.

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