America: Love It and Leave It

There’s a certain rhythm to Newt Gingrich’s outbursts. He’ll complain about his treatment on Air Force One, blame the Democrats for the Susan Smith child murders, or do something similarly outrageous and then retreat into a kind of self-imposed silence. That seems to be happening lately. Earlier this Spring, the speaker referred to Madeleine Albright as “an agent for the Palestinians,” because, in Gingrich’s mind, she’s been too cozy with Yasser Arafat. Then, while in Israel, Gingrich threw a handgrenade at long-standing U.S. policy when he declared that Jerusalem is “the united and eternal capital of Israel.” The United States, of course, recognizes Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital, not the always contentious city of Jerusalem. Mike McCurry, the president’s press secretary, blasted Gingrich not only for his comment but for making it on foreign soil. Since then, Gingrich, as per usual, has been relatively quiet and the incident has been largely forgotten.

Still, it’s worth recalling this little dust up. It casts light on the larger issue of whether it’s appropriate to criticize one’s country while one is overseas. It’s long been considered untoward, if not unpatriotic, to criticize U.S. policy while one is overseas. This came up when Bill Clinton ran in 1992. “I can’t understand someone mobilizing demonstrations in a foreign country when poor kids drafted out of the ghetto are dying in a faraway land,” said George Bush who had no problems drafting poor kids out of the ghetto to die in a faraway land. “You can call me old-fashioned, but that just doesn’t make sense to me.” Dan Quayle chimed in that if Clinton “organized an anti-American demonstration on foreign soil,” he ought to “apologize.” I couldn’t find any quotations from Gingrich on the matter, but I doubt it’s a stretch to say that he probably would have disapproved of Clinton’s behavior too.

Why is it wrong to criticize one’s country from abroad? I don’t think it is–whether it’s Newt or Clinton. One line of argument goes that it’s somehow disloyal to criticize American policies when you’re overseas: You’re giving comfort to the enemy. It’s hard, though, to see why a Matt Cooper-led protest in Oslo is going to comfort America’s enemies more than one in Oregon? If anything, the sight of an American protesting in a foreign capital is a reaffirmation of patriotism-a statement that we’re secure enough in our own freedoms that we can flaunt them.

As with most things, there’s a double standard here. Americans, of course, encourage immigrants to this country to speak freely about their native land. When Bush attacked Clinton’s draft status, exiled Chinese dissident, Gangliang Qiao, noted that Bush had encouraged him to speak out against Beijing while he was in America. “On June 6, 1989, two days after the massacre, President Bush met personally in the White House with some Chinese students,” wrote Qiao in the Los Angeles Times. “During the meeting, Bush told them that supporters of the democratic movement in China should ‘speak out against the brutality.’ If President Bush believed at the time that it was morally wrong to speak out against one’s own country on foreign soil, why did he say this to the Chinese students? If he truly believed that Chinese citizens should speak out against a government running amok, then what is the difference between what Clinton did 23 years ago and what the Chinese students did in 1989?”

Is it because China’s oppressive that we think its okay for dissidents to speak out here? Perhaps. Yet we’re tolerant of emigres from democratic countries, too. If a group of Ulster supporters wanted to march on Fifth Avenue against Tony Blair’s Irish peace agreement we’d find it perfectly tolerable and so, I suspect, would most Britons. If a bunch of Danes wants to march in front of the Danish embassy in Washington to protest their country’s legal access to abortion would Quayle ask them to apologize?

Defenders of the keep-quiet-while-abroad schools sometimes quote the late Arthur Vandenberg. The isolationist turned internationalist senator is famous for his quip that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” By that he meant that pols should put aside their petty rivalries when it comes to issues of national security. He never meant that one should forget about speaking your mind every time you go abroad. Besides, I kind of like Newt sharing his thoughts with the rest of the world.

Matt Cooper