July 2, 2010 | Forbes.com

Being American

This weekend, on July 4, Americans celebrate the 234th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Over the burgers and sweet corn, that’s always a good day to think about what, exactly, it means to be American. One of the best summaries I’ve heard lately came during a press teleconference Wednesday with someone who is not yet an American citizen. His native tongue is Arabic, thus the slip of syntax: “I think I became an American when I start to fight for liberty and freedom.”

The speaker was a Palestinian émigré, Mosab Hassan Yousef, who grew up as the heir-designate of a founder of the terrorist group Hamas. Having witnessed firsthand the horrors that Hamas, in the name of Islamic purity, inflicted on its own people, Yousef secretly went to work for the Israeli intelligence service, Shin Bet, trying to thwart terrorist attacks. He also quietly converted to Christianity and in 2007 came to the U.S., where he made no secret of his past. Instead, he wrote an informative and damning book about Palestinian terrorism, Son of Hamas. And, out of what Yousef has described as his desire to live in freedom, he asked for asylum in America.

The Department of Homeland Security instead proposed to deport him back to the Middle East, which would likely have amounted to a death sentence. There was an outcry in the media, and this past Wednesday, after Homeland Security dropped its objections, an immigration judge ruled that Yousef, after routine procedures, will be granted asylum. It was in a press teleconference following that ruling that Yousef made his comment, connecting being American with fighting for freedom. He’s seen firsthand how deeply important that is.

If only more of America’s current leaders would twig to the same insight. Outside the Beltway, there are plenty of folks who seem to understand why freedom matters. But among those now making policy, both foreign and domestic, it has been largely relegated to an occasional rhetorical flourish. One might well ask, if the nation’s founding fathers had subscribed to the current Washington mindset, would there have been any Declaration of Independence? More likely, they would have tried turning the colonial tax revolt into a 2,000-page Declaration of Dependence, demanding that King George III provide cradle-to-grave welfare benefits, including free tea for select special interests–following which they would either have starved to death or snapped out of it.

As it is, the word “freedom” itself has been fading from the current Washington vocabulary. In this age of proliferating information and dwindling wisdom, a search of the current White House website–including presidential statements, speeches, press releases and so forth–turns up 2,054 hits on “health care” and 792 hits on “climate.” But there are only 493 mentions of “freedom” and 179 of “liberty” (a total that would come a mere 178, but for the mention of the late President Gerald Ford’s golden retriever, Liberty).

That’s a crude measure, but it’s of a piece with a hope-and-change philosophy so post-modern that it has no room for basic principles. Since Barack Obama became president 17 months ago, he has stood up for a patchwork of just about everything but freedom. He’s stood up for big government, carbon caps, outreach, apologies, moral equivalence and, in a sense, for bowing deferentially to assorted undemocratic leaders. He’s stood up for reducing America’s role in the global order–lauding the United Nations, sending Russia a reset button, downplaying human rights violations in China and repeatedly extending a hand to Iran.

More creditably, Obama is trying to make headway in Afghanistan and is willing to put his name to tougher sanctions aimed at choking Iran’s nuclear program. His administration has gone ahead with the recent rolling up of a Russian spy network, the chasing down of a slew of illicit Iranian front operations, and a host of diplomatic initiatives intended to reduce threats to America.

And yet, the threats to America and its allies have been growing and multiplying. North Korea sinks a South Korean warship, drowning 46 South Korean sailors–and thumbs its nose while trafficking weapons to the Middle East. China declines to help and pursues its own military buildup. Iran arms Syria with sophisticated radar and makes common cause in America’s backyard with the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Turkey and Brazil tilt toward Iran, and Russia expands its sphere of influence while cutting deals that disproportionately disarm America. Obama pushes at the U.N. for his dream of a world without nuclear weapons, while in practice the world edges closer to an era in which the folding U.S. defense umbrella is replaced with nuclear proliferation galore.

What’s gone missing from this scene is the basic premise that America, at its core, is not about appeasement, or security, or universal health care, or multi-dimensional diplomacy, but about freedom. That is the real rallying principle that has sustained American democracy for more than two centuries. Defense of freedom is the principle that for generations inspired America to police a complex and dangerous world and win the Cold War. American freedom has been the driving force behind the invention and spread of the enormous benefits of much of modern technology. As an organizing principle for world politics, it is still the best hope not only for Americans, but for mankind. If that seems far too simple for today’s complicated world, I’d suggest it is anything but–and the sooner Washington revives it as the core mission, the better for all.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly columnon foreign affairs for Forbes.

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