The latest in a series of documentaries on American presidents was on President George W. Bush. It ends with his decision to invade Iraq in what became the Second Iraq War. The reason for this decision was given as the importance of taking strong action following the 9/11 attack. The majority of those counseling him thought that an invasion of Afghanistan was not nearly strong enough. Bush took the advice and invaded Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein. The documentary made it quite clear that because of the reason for the decision, insufficient attention was paid to verifying intelligence that Saddam actually had nuclear weapons—the official reason for the invasion.
Although Bush took this decision to the UN, he did not get support from the UN or our allies, both of which he had had for the first Iraq war. The point may have marked the beginning of a general definition of strength and weaknesses in our international actions as downplaying action with allies. Former President Trump gave a heads-up on how extreme he would act to make sure that everything would be seen to come from him alone. One of his earliest actions was to withdraw the US from the multilateral Paris Climate Accord. We see commentary now over the Ukraine crisis very slowly coming to the conclusion that strength resides in acting with allies. In fact, and international polls do show that the US is seen as getting weaker precisely because of our weakening democratic institutions and our in ability to act in unity with others. Biden’s changing this assumption may prove crucial in changing the outcome in Ukraine.
We can only hope that this change in conception of what is strength, what is weakness takes hold and is applied to other areas of our national life. As an example: income inequality is not discussed as an issue of national strength or weakness. We talk about how well our industries are doing without talking about income inequality. What we are interested in talking about is inflation, which can be cast as almost wholly personal: It’s my grocery bill. We can replace workers. We don’t have to raise their wages. The issue isn’t to make them better. Replacing workers as a solution fits the narrative of strength and weakness. The replaceable are by definition weak.
The corporation that owns an apartment building and hasn’t kept up with safety measures is OK because the only people that will get hurt are poor people and they are weak people as defined by the Right. Even economic competition is not defined as strength in the sense of setting up a good system that benefits everyone—it only need benefit the autocratic leader. His followers will just get an emotional rush identifying with how he assaults anyone who would dare challenge him. He is not actually going to benefit them.
It is hard to believe that Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin do not understand how disastrous not passing the Freedom to Vote Act would be for democracy in the United States. It is possible that the reason they don’t understand is that they don’t understand that democracy equals strength not weakness. The right side of our political spectrum has a long list of things that are defined as weak, including democracy. We aren’t really supposed to have a public life because that means compromising with other people when all we are supposed to do is win face-to-face, one-on-one battles. That means that for Trump his quitting all of our international alliances was a sign of strength not weakness. They are not going to notice that the United States is now being judged internationally as weaker and the reason we are being judged as weaker is because of the Right’s successful battles against our democratic institutions.
Democracy is a source of American strength and if we lose it, we lose virtually everything.
— Elizabeth Clark, Chair, Human Rights and Democracy Task Force