John F. Kennedy said that, in his inaugural address. (I was tempted to write "first inaugural," but of course history decreed that there would be only one.) Barak Obama quotes it in his estimable book, The Audacity of Hope," which has about the best title of the year (Obama admits that he did not originate the phrase, but he was smart enough to use it).
I noticed a number of things about that quotation. Today, we would probably not describe half the world as living in huts and villages; it's a measure of economic progress that many more people live in urban areas and are part of formal economies. On the other hand, millions of those people live in squalor, work in sweatshops (which may be a big step up for many) and face the threat, if not the reality, of AIDS.
Yet the principles that JFK enunciated still speak to us. "If a society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich" could be the rallying cry for all who oppose government of, by and for the wealthy. And the idea that policy should be based ultimately on what is right flows as a refreshing breeze after all the years of calculation, triangulation and pseudo-realism. (Yes, yes, the neocons alleged that the invasion of Iraq was a matter of moral choice, but I think the difference between their moral vision and JFK's is pretty clear.)
Now, JFK's actual performance often fell far short of his soaring rhetoric, but at least the words were there to measure his actions by, and to inspire improvement in policy.
How far we have descended from that plateau is shown in Iraq, on a daily basis. Yesterday, Paul Krugman asked if Bush's plan to escalate in Iraq is delusional or merely cynical. It's a close question, but I vote for delusion. Case in point: On Sunday, The Independent described a plan to turn Iraq's oil industry over to western companies:
"Iraq's massive oil reserves, the third-largest in the world, are about to be thrown open for large-scale exploitation by Western oil companies under a controversial law which is expected to come before the Iraqi parliament within days.
"The US government has been involved in drawing up the law, a draft of which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday. It would give big oil companies such as BP, Shell and Exxon 30-year contracts to extract Iraqi crude and allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil interests in the country since the industry was nationalised in 1972."This might seem to be an expression of cynical profiteering--we might call it "The Audacity of Greed," but I see it as embracing at least two delusions: that the world would not view this as evidence that the war was nothing but an imperial grab of resources, and that there is some hope that the Iraqi infrastructure can be rebuilt--a prospect that would require suppression of the insurgency to levels far below what anyone--even the most optimistic--seems to find credible.
Then, this morning, comes word of American airstrikes in Somalia, delivering what must be at best a minor injury to al Qaeda, but a major blow to the fledgling government of that country, which is already seen as an Ethiopian client and will now look like an American one. Not to mention a further stretching of our already-overburdened military.
Come to think of it, maybe Krugman is wrong for once. Maybe W and his coterie are not cynical or delusional, just plain dumb.