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My country, wrong


THE fable-telling and myth-making that pass for the teaching of history in most American schools leave students with the impression that the founders invented American democracy in the single summer of 1787. I was planning an essay explaining that the former Englishmen who wrote the Constitution were heirs to a 500-year tradition of limited, participatory government, stretching back to King John's signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

It was while I was writing, late last Saturday afternoon, that I learned of the U.S. bombing raid on Iraq. My heart sank, and I recalled an essay I wrote for this page two years ago, "On this 4th I cannot celebrate."

As I saw it then (and still do), we went to war in the Persian Gulf to protect our God-given right to buy gasoline at $1.12 a gallon and to that end restored a medieval and obscenely rich #i autocracy. We became not the fulfillment of the dreams of Jefferson and Washington, but simply a bully, the kid with the biggest stick on the block.

Now, two years later, there's a Democrat in the White House, one in whom I still believe despite his missteps and egregious compromises. But this crude display of power appalls me. No one I know disputes that Saddam Hussein is a tyrannical thug. He is also a hero to millions in the Arab world.

Every American attack on Iraq strengthens his position. For the legions of poor Arabs, he is a champion who defied the American imperialists.

My students' ignorance of world history eclipses their blindness of their own country's past, but even a cursory reading of the history of the Middle East reveals the depths to which we are loathed by the Muslim world, and with some justification. Whatever response we might have made to the Iraqi plot to assassinate George Bush, this summer rerun of the Baghdad Bombing Hour is the most foolish strategy of all. Saddam will be more entrenched, and we have all but guaranteed a retaliatory terrorist attack in the United States.

We never learn. Aerial bombing solidifies a civilian population -- as any Londoner who lived through the Blitz knows. We never learn that there are limits to American power, and rightly so. I am especially disturbed that this futile violence comes only days after the Supreme Court's ruling that we may interdict Haitian ships on the high seas -- a clear violation of international law. Did we not go to war in 1812 over such practices?

My country has been, and to my grief remains, the most powerful outlaw nation in the world. If we don't like what you're doing, we'll invade your country, kidnap its dictator, mine your harbors, hijack your ships, foment rebellions (however ineptly) and bomb your cities.

I cannot believe, on this 217th anniversary of the proclamation of our independence in the name of all free people, that Madison or Washington or Franklin envisioned this to be our destiny -- a superpower without restraint or responsibility.

Of course, everyone is cheering. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve and 53 percent think we should assassinate Saddam.

Would they also approve an Iraqi strike on CIA headquarters in Langley?

For those few remaining students of American history, there is a telling irony in this sordid episode. The missile strike against Baghdad was launched from the USS Chancellorsville. The battle of Chancellorsville, in May 1863, was a brilliant tactical victory for the Southern army, until, stumbling confusedly in the dark, Confederate soldiers shot and killed their general, Stonewall Jackson. It was a loss from which Robert E. Lee's army never recovered.

Robin J. Holt lives and teaches in Baltimore.

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